Archive for March, 2012

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Fishies

March 29, 2012

Anthropologists of the future would be baffled if they were to examine the streets radiating northwards from Lincoln Elementary School in Bergenfield. What were these hundreds of strange dark blotches everywhere in the cement sidewalks? The shadowy remains of creatures vaporized in their tracks by subatomic particles emitted from some advanced weapon? The remnants of a mysterious life form that oozed up from the earth’s core in just this tiny area of the planet?

No. But any school kid who went to Lincoln School in the second half of the twentieth century would know the answer. Fishies.

More precisely, melted wax from a hugely popular confection sold at Fishies, or Greenwood’s Deli, as adults knew it. These treats were simple tubes of chewable wax filled with flavored syrup (sugar!), and as students from Lincoln would travel back from a foray to this popular local Mom and Pop store, they would spit the chewed up and now sugarless wax onto the sidewalk as they walked. The sun did the rest, melting the wax into the concrete along with whatever sidewalk dirt was on the soles of all those small Keds that  trampled over this route.

Fishies. The word brings back memories of a virtual kid’s paradise. Go in with some spare change in your pocket, and the world was yours. Strips of paper with candy dots in rows upon it. Baseball cards in their packs with the lightly powdered pink bubble gum we would cram in our mouths and chew till our jaws were sore and pop all over our faces as we traded or flipped for our favorite players in the school yard. Skybars, Necco wafers, Turkish Taffy, Red Hot Dollars. Pez, for cryin’ out loud! All the candies of years gone by. And of course, everyone’s favorite, the wax tubes.

Fishies was also the introduction to my fascination with the world of flying. For fifteen cents one could buy a simple balsa wood glider. I must have bought scores of these over my years at Lincoln, spending blissful hours at Memorial Field, adjusting the wings to do loop-de-loops or steep climbs or jet-like strafing runs. Oh, how the imagination soared as the young World War II flying ace shot down Jap Zeroes and German Messerschmidts withstanding more than occasional crash-landings to return home safely to his sweetheart. Snoopy had nothin’ on me! Later, with a few more quarters in my pocket, there were the more sophisticated rubber band-powered  models, the bridge, I hoped, to the gas powered planes I saw the older guys flying in the park (which always remained forbidden to me–too dangerous).

Fishies seemed to embody all that was good about that time of our lives. The simple pleasures that were available for mere pennies. The first taste of freedom as a consumer on one’s own. A patient adult who would kindly tolerate many a kid whose mind could not be made up faced with the momentous decision–Black Jack Gum or Candy Cigarettes.

Fishies, with Jeanette Greenwood (daughter of original owner Max Fisherman)

It was sad news when the story appeared in the local newspaper a few years ago that Fishies was closing. Although inevitable, the idea that such an institution, the trigger of so much nostalgia in so many, would be gone was a poignant reality. But whatever transformation the building on the corner of West Broad Street and Fairview Avenue undergoes, it will forever live on in the memories of thousands of now-grown-up kids as Fishies.

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Katie and Me

March 18, 2012

Life is filled with innumerable random incidents. Why they occur as they do is a mystery. Some believe each is a small piece in a great puzzle, fulfilling a preordained design for that particular life. Others feel that these are a product of the chaotic coincidences of our existence. Most have little significance and are forgotten no sooner than they occur. But for some reason, I tend to remember them quite clearly, especially the ones that seem to be of no great consequence. The day of my brief encounter with Katie Couric was one of those.

My family was on the first of what was to become our annual family vacation. By family, I mean my wife’s family: her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids. I’m not sure exactly how it got started, but it continued for thirteen years, starting from the year my nephew Luke was born. We traveled to many marvelous places together from Hawaii to the Mediterranean. Many of our trips were to the West, and this first one brought us to the beautiful state of Wyoming.

The year was 1995. Emma was five years old and a bit anxious about being in such unfamiliar surroundings. Luke was seven months old and quite oblivious to all but his next meal, diaper change, and the loving arms of his mom. We had flown to Arizona and rented a van to haul our crew of eight through the natural wonders of that area.

On this particular day, we had taken a trip to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. A shuttle boat took us across the lake to a trail on the other shore suitable for hiking in the shadow of the surrounding peaks. The trail led to places with such enticing names as Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, but since we had both oldsters and youngsters in our party, our goal was a leisurely walk in the glory of the countryside. As was her normal practice, Emma made frequent stops to pick up, examine, and then have me hold onto various specimens of flora along the way. Had they all been saved, she would own one mighty collection of sticks and flowers and leaves.

Emma and her Uncle Muskie

The shuttle boat operated on a loose schedule, so when the time approached for the boat to return to pick us up, we headed back along the trail to the small dock. As we approached the spot, my mother-in-law turned around to see another small group approaching us.

“It’s Katie Couric! It’s Katie Couric!” she excitedly whispered. And sure enough, right behind us was Katie Couric with her small band of fellow hikers.

As soon as my brother-in-law heard this, he pounced. Not because he was a TV groupie (that was more my mother-in-law’s angle), but rather because she had recently done a story that was anti-pharmaceutical industry, and that was his bread and butter. I didn’t get to hear his harangue because I was busy occupying Emma since the boat was nowhere yet in sight.

Emma wanted to head directly for the water as most kids would. The bank was a bit steep for her five year old legs, so I carefully ushered her to the edge of the water. And what activity is better suited for a child by the edge of a lake while waiting for a shuttle boat than throwing rocks in the water, which is exactly what we proceeded to do. My task was to search for smaller stones which I handed to Emma who then tossed them with great gusto but less than stellar accuracy towards the water. It was great fun.

In the meanwhile, Katie was trying to make a gracious escape from my brother-in-law, not so easy to do on a narrow trail. Her little daughter Ellie saw Emma happily engaged in her waterfront activity and immediately wanted to join her. Though clearly not thrilled with the prospect of a potential wet-shoes afternoon, Katie may have seen this as good exit strategy and edged her way toward the bank with Ellie, who joined right in with the fun. I poked around for more stones and handed them to both Emma and Ellie who quickly bonded in their mutual pursuit of beholding the wonder of the displacement of water when struck by a solid object.

The shuttle boat soon appeared, and its timing could not have been better. I was running out of stones to give the girls, and they were inching ever closer to the water on the muddy shoreline. I began easing Emma away, but she insisted, “One more, Uncle Muskie, one more!” Of course I obliged (I could never turn Emma down), and little Ellie then wanted the same. Katie turned to me and said in a firm but gentle voice, the smile never leaving her face, “Okay, Uncle Muskie. I think we’ve had enough rock throwing for one day.”  I smiled in return as she gathered Ellie up and we all headed our separate ways.

Countless people pass through our lives during the course of events both great and small. The crossing of paths may be as simple as an exchange of glances or a few words. This one particular incident took only a few minutes. It happened a long time ago (by my hasty calculations, 22,830 days have gone by since). I was by no means a star-struck fan enchanted by an encounter with celebrity. She said exactly a dozen words to me. But I can recall it as clearly as the day it happened.

Now, I realize that Katie Couric is a busy woman with many things on her mind, far more than me, I’m sure. Still, I wonder if she ever sits down on a rainy day to look over her old vacation photos and, coming across the ones from that Wyoming vacation in 1995, recalls the afternoon when Ellie was throwing rocks in a lake with Emma’s Uncle Muskie.

Katie, if you happen to read this, drop me a line and let me know.

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The State of the Glass

March 11, 2012

In 1990, Anna Quindlen published an article entitled “The Glass Half Empty.” It was about what Anna was given by her daughter on the day she turned two. Over the years, Anna had learned to live with the obstacles of being female in this male-dominated world, accepting them knowing things were better than they had been. She had become content with the glass half full. But now she looked at her little girl and knew that she wanted more for her, thus giving Anna an angry return to a pessimistic view of the state of gender equality, the glass half empty. This may sound quite odd, but it makes perfect sense once you hear her out. The article was written with such power and passion that I began using it as a springboard activity in my writing classes during Women’s History Month each March.

Women’s History Month. It is about this time I begin to hear the groans. “Not that again,” some complain. “Haven’t we put that one to rest yet?” others moan.

Well, it is 2012, and yes, it is that again. And no, it hasn’t been put to rest. Why? Because, as Anna Quindlen so succinctly put it, this is still “a world that, despite all our nonsense about post feminism, continues to offer less respect and less opportunity for women than it does for men.”

I say this knowing that there have indeed been advances by women in many areas, including some, such as the high school graduation rate and bachelor’s degrees earned, in which they have surpassed men. But this must be qualified. There are many more areas where the inequities persist, even in the United States which has claimed to be at the vanguard of the movement for equal treatment.  Much of the world lags even further behind.

One important area is that of elected offices. Here are the telling statistics. Currently 50.9 % of the population of the United States is female, but women only comprise 12% of governors and 17% of the members of Congress. How is this a representative government? Remember, this is in the country supposedly with government of, by, and for the people which did not even allow women the right to vote until 1920 (which, by the way, was after Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia), and then only after a fierce battle to obtain that right. In Arizona, there was a state requirement that officeholders be male until 1988. How’s that for enlightened governance in a democracy? How can issues of great significance to women such as the current health care ones be properly debated and legislated without the direct and proportionate input of women?

Another key area is economics, for in this society, money is power. What is called the gender gap in earning has been calculated for quite a few years. The gap has closed, but the rate has been unsatisfactory in the opinion of many. In 1970, women earned 59 cents for every dollar men earned. Two decades later in the year Anna Quindlen wrote her article, it had risen to 67 cents. The turn of the millennium brought 74 cents, and in 2010 it stood at 77 cents. That is an increase of 18 cents in forty years, or an astounding rate of .45 cents per year. If the increase continues at this rate, it will take until 2063 to be equal.

It is easier to measure the changes in elected offices or economics, though, than it is to measure changes in attitude, and it is those changes that are most critical. It is also the area that seems to be most problematic. There is much evidence that women are still regarded as inferior to men. This is a politically incorrect and unacceptable idea in polite society, but polite society ends at the front door of people’s homes.

The statistics for domestic abuse are one indication of this. In the U.S. a man beats a woman every 12 seconds. Four women a day die as a result of these beatings. Men batter four million women each year. Though keeping statistics on verbal and emotional abuse is impossible, anecdotally there appears to be a tremendous amount of it. This is not something that can be legislated out of existence; it is perpetuated in the actions of one generation of men that serve as models for the next. In Anna Quindlen’s words,  “Just as we fooled ourselves that the end of discriminatory laws would soon lead to racial harmony, so we thought that increased access to education, advancement, and male-only arenas would erase the attitudes that have led some men to treat women like children, fools, and punching bags.”

Sexual harassment in the workplace also attests to these attitudes. Some surveys show that 40% of women say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. A New York Times/CBS News poll reported that 50% of the men surveyed admitted to having sexually harassed a woman at work. Anna Quindlen relates this incident: “… a waitress told me of complaining to the manager of the coffee shop in which she worked about his smutty comments and intimate pats. He replied, ‘You’re a skirt.’ Then he told her that if she didn’t like it, there were plenty of other skirts out there who would take the job — and the abuse. She needed the money and she got the message — there is one standard for people, and there is another standard for skirts….”

The roots of this phenomenon are deep. Institutional discrimination permeates the history of this nation. It was manifest in public policies of this country including the exclusion of women from voting, holding public office, serving on juries, and attaining higher education. In the 14th Amendment of our Constitution, the very foundation of our laws, “citizens” and “voters” are defined as male. In an 1873 Supreme Court case (Bradwell vs. Illinois), the court affirmed that, in order to “preserve family harmony and uphold the law of the Creator,” states could restrict women from practicing any profession. In 1923, the Supreme Court struck down a 1918 minimum wage law for women because if it were in effect, then women would be considered equal to men. The endemic nature of the problem was highlighted in 1963 when a report issued by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women documented discrimination against women “in virtually every area of American life.” It took until 1973 for the U.S. military to integrate females when women-only branches were finally eliminated. It took until 1975 for a court decision to deny states the right to exclude women from serving on juries. It took until 1976 for the military academies to be open to women’s admissions. It took until 1981 for a woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Societal bias paralleled that which infused the establishment. In 1850 when the first females graduated medical school, they needed a police guard because of threats against them. A Harvard medical professor, Edward Charles, proclaimed in 1873 that both women and their offspring would be harmed by higher education. This belief remained widespread for decades. Comments by public figures from President Grover Cleveland (“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.”) to Pat Buchanan (“Complain as they will about ‘discrimination,’ women are simply not endowed by nature with the same measures of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed in the fiercely competitive world of Western capitalism.”) to the recent reprehensible and demeaning comments by Rush Limbaugh reflect the ingrained philosophy that women are inferior beings.

How shall this ever be rectified? What can be done to break the cycle of the diminishment and stereotyping of females? There are no easy answers, that’s for sure. Change comes slowly in the hearts and minds of men. Much legislation has been enacted towards this end, and educational and business institutions are coming around in their clumsy bureaucratic ways. But in the end it will be up to each of us in this society to play whatever role we can to educate, convince, or persuade those who continue to maintain their Neanderthal attitudes. This struggle won’t be over until the idea of gender equality is a reality embraced by all. I have a feeling that this will not occur any time soon, but the goal is a righteous one, and it is worth paying whatever price in time and effort it takes to achieve it.

Anna’s daughter is now 24. Perhaps when she has a daughter, on her second birthday her gift to her mother will be an optimistic one: the prospect of a glass that is finally full.

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March Forth, English Teachers (A Sonnet in Honor of National Grammar Day, March 4th)

March 4, 2012

To conquer bad grammar in ev’ry class

and banish poor syntax in all the land;

to vanquish weak usage both mild and crass,

march forth, English teachers, and take a stand.

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In spite of bad test scores that may be found

on tests that downplay our most basic skills,

Toward a much higher goal we are bound,

march forth, English teachers, and steel your wills.

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Text messages and those damned Facebook posts

ignoring all rules that we taught them well;

the errors disturbing the great bards’ ghosts;

march forth, English teachers, and give them hell.

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Let’s purify language from South to North;

Restore proper English! Teachers, march forth!

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Old Stuff

March 2, 2012

I am addicted to old stuff. Not just any old stuff, like that which one can find at flea markets and garage sales. My old stuff. I can’t seem to part with it. This of course causes both great clutter in my basement as well as consternation on the part of my wife (she likes to throw things out). For me, every trip downstairs to do a load of wash or get some paper towels can turn into a protracted trip down memory lane as I get distracted by a box of old stuff.

I have a hard time letting my old stuff go because it is imbued with emotional significance. This is the history of my life, the artifacts that mark the passage of my time on this Earth. I am aware that this particular old stuff is of absolutely no interest to anyone else. These are not items that will increase in value some day; no priceless antiques or collectables here. Those who would hope to find some rare baseball card or original Wallace Nutt shall be sadly disappointed. My old stuff will merely become someone else’s burden some day,  just a basement full of crap to dispose of. That is a harsh reality, and I accept it.

But I still can’t get rid of it.

Here is, in part, what would be found: various Boy Scout neckerchiefs and  neckerchief slides and badges from different camps and activities; assorted arts and crafts made in my early school years (usually as gifts for my parents) including a clay dinosaur, candle holder, and ashtray (I liked clay); my report cards — a complete set — from kindergarten through high school; most editions of my high school and college newspapers; knickknacks sent over from my relatives in Sweden; a sewing box full of buttons that I treasured for some strange reason as a little boy; a plastic case of Viewmaster discs along with a nonfunctioning Viewmaster; the contents of my desk drawer from my childhood bedroom; bronzed baby shoes (do people still do that??); souvenir match boxes from assorted bars in Hong Kong and Manila; every letter or postcard ever sent to me.

I made a valiant effort to eliminate  some of my old stuff the past few summers which was only partly successful. The main accomplishment of this attempted purge was to organize everything in boxes, so now at least the clutter is somewhat orderly and geometrical. This made my wife happier because it looks like less stuff.

I know that I am not alone in this affliction for several reasons. First, during the summers of my college years, I worked as a meter reader for Public Service Electric and Gas Company. That job brought me into countless basements throughout northern New Jersey (who knows — maybe I was in yours). I observed that more than a few of them were subterranean Museums of Personal History in various states of disarray. Second, I have seen reports on TV, the most recent by Steve Hartman on the CBS Sunday Morning Show, that featured others of this bent. And third, the fact that today, March 2, has been designated by Those Who Should Know as Old Stuff Day. How much more legitimate can that be!

So tomorrow morning when I go down to do the laundry, don’t be surprised if I don’t answer your phone call or knock on the door. I’ll probably be downstairs lost in the past as I look through some part of my somewhat dusty but still precious collection of old stuff.