Posts Tagged ‘humor’

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Dog Days

June 20, 2017

For those who are inexperienced in such matters, life with a dog is significantly different from life without one. I am particularly aware of this because I happen to have a foot in both worlds.

I do not own a dog myself, so the majority of my time is spent dogless. However, since both my brother-in-law and niece are dog owners who go away fairly often, I thus become de facto caretaker of an intensely loyal Schnauzer named Rocky and a cute but rambunctious Morkie named Max.

Rocky and Max

I love animals in general, but dogs have a special place in my heart. The unconditional love they share with the humans in their lives is unmatched (very often by humans themselves), and there is no price that can be put on the joy they bring us.

But, as with everything in life, there are pitfalls as well, ones about which the dogless are oblivious.

Dogs, for instance, do not know how to use a toilet. Such an incongruous idea never occurs to those who are not in the position of walking a dog in pouring rainstorms, freezing cold, or sweltering heat (one becomes hyper-sensitive to weather forecasts in such situations) or at inconvenient hours (such as 5:00 in the morning or after you have already gotten ready for bed). At least cats, for all their faults, know how to use a litter box. But I digress.

Dogs (many of them I hear, and certainly the two in my life) like to sleep with their humans. Now I am not so fussy as to object to a pup snuggled at the foot of my bed, but when he insists on cuddling up right next to me on my pillow, that’s where I draw the line. Dogs, unfortunately, don’t understand the lines that one draws.

Dogs like to bark, some more than others. Chloe, the pit bull that lives down the street, never barks. In stark contrast, Rocky and Max make a living barking. At the mailman. At the children passing on the way to or from school. At birds that fly by, at squirrels that prance teasingly on the branches outside the window knowing they are immune, at chipmunks that scurry by the front door, and at cats. Especially cats.

This is particularly problematic for us since we maintain a small group of feral cats who have lived in and about our yard for years (now all neutered). They are friendly and entertaining and keep down the rodent population in the garden. It is not difficult, in my opinion anyway, to live at peace with them.

Rocky and Max, on the other hand, have quite a different perspective. It is their mission to relentlessly pursue them (a near impossible task if you are at all familiar with cats) and, failing that, to bark their fool heads off whenever they see them (like when lounging in their favorite spot on our deck). I have taken to keeping large cardboard sections handy to strategically place in lines of sight by doors and windows to control the racket.

My brother-in-law employs shock collars to deal with this problem at his house, but I don’t have the heart to do that. I’ll just stick to the cardboard.

Dogs like to eat. They like to eat just about anything, above all whatever you happen to be eating. At the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. On the couch snacking during TV time. In the car after a stop at the drive-in or ice cream shop. Dogs also don’t quite get the impropriety of begging.

During this current period of dog days, it is only Max that is staying here. He is watching me right now as I write this from his customary perch on the back of the couch (he has a Snoopy complex in that regard). I had considered letting him look this over before posting it, but his editing skills don’t quite match his barking ability. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my minor criticisms, for he knows well my tender feelings toward him as does Rocky.

Though at times I look forward to being free of the inconveniences of their presence, each time they go, I end up missing them. And I think perhaps that is the most essential measure of the quality of life with a dog.

Whaddaya mean the cats are your friends???

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Love Your Pet

February 20, 2016
Emma's Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Rocky, the pet I always wished I had

Today, February 20, is Love Your Pet Day. I realize that it is also Cherry Pie Day this year, but in spite of the relative deliciousness of this enticing dessert, how special in the hearts of people can it really be? But a day to celebrate your pet? Come on, now.

Having a pet during one’s childhood is a cherished institution and a rite of passage for most American kids (and their parents who often end up taking care of them). There are pets of all kinds found in our households from the warm and furry to the feathered or scaled: cats, fish, birds, lizards, ferrets, snakes; you name it, and some kid probably has it.

Dogs, though, are by far the standard as evidenced by a walk through any neighborhood on a nice day. Our popular media reflects this too with a litany of favorite canine characters: Spot, Snoopy, Clifford, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Santa’s Little Helper, and Toto, to name a few. However, for various reasons (allergies, parental fear, small quarters) there exist those dogless homes with children still yearning for a creature to call their own, forcing those parents to resort to a Plan B of some sort. My home was one of those, and in my case, Plan B was Pew Pew.

Pew Pew was a duckling that arrived one Easter when I was about six. My sister and I were quite excited, though I don’t recall either of us asking for waterfowl of any kind. Nonetheless, Pew Pew took up residence in a makeshift pen in a corner of our already small dining room. I’m sure my mother was thrilled about this arrangement.

Now, ducks are probably not the best dog substitute. They are not predisposed to be walked on a leash, don’t like to be pet, and learning tricks like fetching or rolling over is quite beyond them. Quacking, waddling, eating, and pooping is their complete repertoire. They must depend on being endearingly cute to earn their keep. Their window for that is quite small.

I don’t remember what we fed Pew Pew, but it must have been pretty nutritious because he quickly outgrew his dining room pen. My dad sacrificed part of his tomato garden to create a fenced-in area out behind our garage. This had several benefits. It was roomier, did not involve stringent cleaning, and Pew Pew could waddle about and quack to his heart’s content without bothering my mother, though I’m sure our neighbors were none too pleased. The problem came when autumn rolled around and the question of what to do with Pew Pew in the winter arose. He was not about to make a return indoors as long as my mother had anything to do with it.

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

Pew Pew and I (note the warm interaction from him)

The first idea for solving this dilemma seemed simple enough. We would drive him across town to Coopers Pond and drop him off in the company of all the other ducks who made it their home. One afternoon we did just that. We brought him to the water’s edge, set him down, and turned to make a quick escape (in order to avoid a drawn-out goodbye, I supposed). Now Pew Pew could dwell in happiness with others of his kind.

The Cooper’s Pond ducks apparently never got that memo. They immediately set upon this uninvited intruder with much loud quacking and flapping and pecking. Pew Pew had no choice but to flee for his life. He waddled like I never saw him do before, almost beating us back to the car. In view of this unexpected turn of events, my parents were forced to relent, and Pew Pew had a reprieve.

This led to a second and more involved attempt several weeks later. We piled into the car with Pew Pew and drove away, this time to a farm in Long Island. Some arrangement had been made with the farm’s owners; I believe some distant cousin from the Long Island branch of the family knew them. After some final goodbyes, we drove off, never to see Pew Pew again. I’m glad I didn’t realize at the time that he’d most likely end up glazed on someone’s plate in a restaurant.

My pet void was filled a few years later. During a family outing at Palisades Amusement Park, I spotted a game of chance that drew me instantly to it because it seemed winnable and the prize was a goldfish. The object of the game was to throw a ping pong ball so it landed in one of the small fish bowls lined up on a shelf. Each was filled with colored water and had a goldfish occupying it, and the fish and bowl would be yours with a single successful toss. I don’t remember how many attempts it took (the mouths of the bowls were narrower than one would have expected), but by golly, I went home with a goldfish!

My joy of having a pet fish (who, in reality, did even less than Pew Pew, but a pet is a pet) was short-lived. The following weekend I went on a camping trip with my Boy Scout troop. I gave detailed instructions on the care and feeding of my fish to my mother. Upon my return on Sunday, the fish bowl was gone from its perch on a shelf in the kitchen and I was informed of the goldfish’s sudden demise. My suspicion (unfounded, of course — it was most likely the ingestion of the colored water in the bowl that did him in) was that my mom seized the opportunity of my absence and whacked the little fella.

Two parakeets came next, the first named Fudgie followed by another named Val, but they were “family pets,” so my connection to them was minimal. I must admit, they beat both Pew Pew and the goldfish by a mile when it came to being entertaining, but still I was not emotionally invested, as they say. The same was true for my sister’s two small turtles. I remember more about their clear plastic bowl with its clear plastic island and green plastic palm tree (I hope those guys liked plastic) than I do about the turtles themselves.

Then it happened. I got a real pet, one I actually wanted, a hamster named Scrappy. This small brown and white ball of fur came with a wire cage complete with exercise wheel and an inverted gravity-feed water bottle. I could hold him and let him climb up my arm. He could eat out of my hand and play on the table. I could watch him spin madly in his exercise wheel. This surpassed the combined skills of all the previous pets. Best of all, I could tell he loved me when he looked up at me with his beady little black eyes, whiskers all atwitter. It was my job to feed him, clean his cage, and take care that he didn’t escape (the last one my mother was particularly emphatic about). And I did this religiously. Well, most of the time.

My time with Scrappy was a happy one, marred only by two incidents, both of which were the result of my failure to properly execute my duties. The first was when he escaped through the unsecured door on his cage. He disappeared for a few days, causing my mother great distress, but then suddenly reappeared in the back of a closet. I attributed his return to him missing my tender care and not my sister’s theory that he was merely hungry. However, this was minor compared to the second incident which was catastrophic.

One particular day I hadn’t fed Scrappy on schedule, resulting in a harsh reprimand from my mother. I attempted to get his food, stored in the bottom cabinet of a freestanding cupboard, but in my shaken state, I pulled the doors too hard. The entire cupboard tipped over and the upper doors swung open unleashing a barrage of my mother’s prized wedding china which rained down and crashed all around me. I had never seen my mother so upset, and in her tearful rant she yelled something about “getting rid of that damned animal.” I dashed from the pile of shards (amazingly unscathed), snatched Scrappy from his cage, and ran crying into the garage, cowering in a corner in fear of losing my little friend. It took some major diplomacy on my father and sister’s part to placate my mother, but Scrappy avoided the threatened exile.

One Sunday morning I arose to get Scrappy from his cage. At first I didn’t see him, but then, amongst the wood shavings, I saw him on his side with his little pink feet sticking stiffly out. Scrappy had moved on to hamster heaven. I was crushed. He was honored with a tearful funeral in our backyard beneath the climbing rose bush which was the final resting place for all our pets (except for the poor goldfish, who I think got unceremoniously flushed). There were to be no more pets of my own in my life after that.

I’m not sure if the many supposed life lessons accorded to pet ownership were learned or not when I was a kid. However, I’ve since come to understand during my years of reading student compositions how great and widespread the trauma is from the death of a pet. Perhaps these first encounters with unqualified love and inevitable departure are important to an early understanding of mortality. This is a tough lesson no matter when it occurs, and it is never easy to deal with emotionally. But there is the Yin of joy and companionship and that offsets the Yang of death, and it is the capacity to realize that balance which may be part of the critical foundation for a child’s future understanding. For most kids who had their own Scrappy experience whether it was a dog, cat, bird, or iguana, I think they would conclude it was better to have had their loving friend and lost them than to never have had them at all.

So today on Love Your Pet Day, think back to Rover or Fluffy or Pretty Boy. Lift a glass in appreciation of their memory. If you currently have a pet in your life, take the time to give him or her an extra pat or a special treat. After all, there is no one else who loves you like your pet.

Emma's Max, who knows well the love of his human

Max, who knows well the love of his human

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My Short-Lived Movie Career

January 29, 2016

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The Methodist Youth Hostel on Adriatico Street in Manila, a compound of small ordinary-looking buildings, had become the place that most Peace Corps Volunteers would stay when in from the provinces. Both its location close to Peace Corps Headquarters and cheap rates made it ideal. Even with its shared bathrooms and barrack-style sleeping quarters, it was a luxury compared to most of our in-country abodes. Little did I know that this was to be the unlikely site of the beginning of my short-lived movie career.

One seemingly ordinary Friday in March of 1972 found me spending a weekend there along with a fellow volunteer, Bob Johnson. Bob had the semblance of a California surfer from his blonde Beach Boy hair to his laid-back demeanor, except that he happened to be from Brooklyn. We went through training together in the same group back in the states but saw each other infrequently since we had been assigned to different islands. This accidental reunion presented a welcome opportunity to catch up a bit. We had no idea what was in store for us.

The producers of the many B movies that were being made in the Philippines at the time apparently knew that this was the spot where young Americans tended to lodge. Whenever the need for extras of this type arose, this would be their first stop.

One such gentleman showed up on that Friday and spotted Bob and me. He asked us if we would be interested in making a little money by being in a movie. Having nothing in particular scheduled, we looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?”

At that time we had absolutely no idea what the movie was about, what kind of roles we would be playing, and most of all that this was to be the now-famous Tom Selleck’s film debut.

The movie folks drove us to the location in Manila where the scene we were to be in was being filmed. We soon arrived at Intramuros, a landmark of great historical significance. Built by the Spaniards during their colonial reign, the cave-like fort became infamous for its use as a Japanese prison during WW II.

And what were we going to be doing on this hallowed ground? Filming an R-rated scene for a trashy movie about devil worship!

The title of this cinema masterpiece was Daughters of Satan. Our one and only scene consisted of the flogging of one of the Daughters whose path had strayed from the coven, thus leading to her punishment. Bound spread-eagle and topless, she was faced with the choice of returning to her Satanic family or the prospect of some vile form of torture and death.

Bob and I played the roles of the “enforcer” warlocks. We sat on either side of the stone throne of the head witch who conducted the malevolent proceedings. And what an odd pair of warlocks we were! Bob was well over six feet tall, fair, and built somewhat like a lumberjack. I was dark, scrawny, bearded, and five-foot-eight.

Type cast?

Type cast?

We were dressed as we normally would have been: jeans, T-shirts, and flip-flops, not very warlock-like in my opinion. No matter. As the gathered coven, mostly Filipino extras trying hard to look evil despite their excitement at being in such close proximity to the naked bosom of a starlet, chanted “flog her, flog her,” Bob and I looked on, glaring with our sternest Satanic stares. My appearance was brief; after the opening part of the scene, there are but fleeting glimpses of me partly hidden in the shadows behind the flogging scaffold. I personally believe my best shots were left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I don’t recall exactly how many times the scene had to be repeated, but it turned out to be a lengthy affair with much waiting around in the tropical heat between takes.

At the end of the shooting we were asked to make up stage names (mine was Donald Wilborn, the best I could come up with under the hasty circumstances) and then paid seventy-five dollars for our troubles (not bad considering that equaled our Peace Corps salary for a month). Since he didn’t appear in our scene, we never did get the chance to actually meet Selleck.

Bob and I went back to the hostel with unanticipated money in our pockets and an unusual tale to tell. We finished up our Peace Corps lives over the next few months and then returned to the United States later that summer. Bob got married and moved away, and unfortunately I lost touch with him.

As time passed and I resumed my stateside life, I didn’t give much thought to this strange episode, at least not until one ordinary summer evening back home in Bergenfield.

My friends Johnny, Rob, and Chuck sat around the kitchen table at my house, once again reenacting the old “So, what do you want to do tonight?” routine from the classic film Marty. As I perused the movie listings, there I saw it: Daughters of Satan! Playing that very night at a theater in Englewood, the next town over!

We excitedly piled into the car and headed to the final showing of the night. Johnny tried to talk the older disinterested-looking woman at the ticket window into letting us in for free since one of the “stars” of the movie was in our party, but she only looked at us askance and asked if we wanted to buy tickets or not. My scene flew by in a couple of minutes, but we all had quite a hoot anyway.

Decades passed until Daughters of Satan unexpectedly resurfaced again.

Lunchtime in the faculty room at Pierrepont School evoked conversations amongst my friends and colleagues during which virtually anything could — and usually did — come up, including stories exchanged of our varied and often wacky experiences. I related the account of the making of my warlock scene, and it thereafter became kind of a running joke, culminating in two unique Christmas presents.

One year it came in the form of an original movie poster — amazingly procured online after all these years  — in which I can be seen, an illustrated extra looking for all the world like a young Charles Manson to the far left of the half-naked starlet who was, of course, the main attraction.

IMGP5551

Another year not long after, I received a DVD copy of the movie produced in England, of all places. I henceforth had the ability to view this awful piece of cinema in the privacy of my own home whenever I so chose. Normally it just sits in its dust-covered glory in the bottom of a cabinet, but I do admit that I take a peek at my sixty seconds of “fame” every so often. But otherwise, Daughters of Satan has fittingly faded away into the twilight of the distant past.

Unless, of course, Selleck calls to do a sequel.

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Peculiar People

January 10, 2016

Version 2

There are many unusual celebratory days in January (Fruitcake Toss Day, Bean Day, Houseplant Appreciation Day, Blame Someone Else Day, Penguin Awareness Day, and Measure Your Feet Day to name a few), but my favorite has always been today, Peculiar People Day.

The most interesting people I know, have known, or know about certainly fall into this category. This is not in any way a derogatory assessment in my view. After all, just what does “peculiar” mean?

Various dictionaries offer the following synonyms: unusual, eccentric, odd, curious. I, for one, do not consider those adjectives to necessarily be problematic. Being someone who departs from the ordinary is, after all, so often considered to be a good thing.

Think about it. Some of the icons of our society who are most revered are, well, peculiar. Unusual. Eccentric. Odd. The list is both long and varied, populated by individuals in all walks of life, people such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein, Bjork, and Elon Musk. They share certain common characteristics like being creative, intelligent, intensely curious, and most of all nonconformist. Often we love them, sometimes we may not, but in either case, they are hard to ignore.

Why then are so many made to suffer for their peculiarities? It is ironic that in a country that purports to be the champion of individual freedom and respect for others that such a high premium is placed on conformity. Those amongst us who are different either by nature or by choice provide the diversity which most, in theory, accept as desirable. In practice, however, too often it is scorn and mockery that is their reward.

So perhaps this day might be the impetus to reconsider your thoughts about all the peculiar people in our midst. Maybe you will find something peculiar about yourself if you look hard enough. Even if you can’t, it might be time to acknowledge and appreciate your quirkier friends, acquaintances, coworkers, or family members. That is, of course, if they’re not off somewhere celebrating Measure Your Feet Day.

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Christmas Tree Memories

December 17, 2015
"It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star."

“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!” I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed on Christmas Eve filled with all of the expectations of a Norman Rockwell American childhood. Cookies and milk had been left for Santa on a lolly pole in the rumpus room and empty stockings hung on the fake fireplace our father had built. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover the cookies all eaten (and even a bit of beard hair somehow caught under the plate in Santa’s haste to complete his route), the stockings stuffed, and a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. It was only later that the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. Our father often worked a second job as a part-time seasonal janitor to earn extra money for the holidays. Things were tough in those days, so he had gotten our tree for free from the school he had been cleaning. It had graced that happy classroom for weeks but was now discarded since winter break had arrived. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.
However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes and shoves and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to have ruined everyone’s Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand each year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor around the glittering centerpiece we had helped create. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my past. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory has become perhaps the most precious gift of all.

emma hand

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The Accordion Door

June 28, 2015

My father was a very handy man but also very traditional, so when he was finishing my little room in the dormer he built atop our house, I was surprised when he installed the accordion door.

All of the other doors in the rest of the house were the traditional swinging wooden kind. So why an accordion door? In hindsight, it made good sense. The opening to my room was at the very top of a steep staircase. A traditional door swinging out would clobber any unsuspecting person at the top of the steps or block off the only window on that side of the upstairs. There was little room for it to swing inward, the end of my bed reaching the space by the opening on one side and a bookshelf filling the other. The accordion door did not swing either way. It folded up sideways. Problem solved.

Another created, however, at least in the eyes of a twelve year old in search of a private life. Space saving though it may be, the accordion door was noisy. Its unmistakable rumbling sound could be heard throughout the house, making it impossible to enter or exit without announcing it to the rest of the family or any guests who may have been present. Especially in the quiet of the night. Every bathroom run or late night refrigerator raid could be detected from the start because of that door.

There was no way to prevent this racket. The tracks would not accept any kind of lubricant (I tried). Speed would only alter the tone and duration. There was no way around it. It was like having those peacocks that guarded the Turkish prisons, innocent looking until you tried to get past them, and then the squawking alarm would sound. Now, I was not really doing anything so surreptitious that I should worry over this, but the mind of a twelve year old boy is a strange thing indeed.

What made it worse was that I actually played the accordion back then. I absolutely hated it. One could not ask for a more dorky instrument to play. Well, I take that back. My sister played the glockenspiel for a time. That had me beat.

My mother was a huge fan of the Lawrence Welk Show, and one of her favorites was the accordion player, a straight arrow named Myron Floren. Myron! What was his mother thinking! He was destined to play the accordion (or the glockenspiel) with a name like that. Anyway, it is my belief that my mother wanted her ugly duckling son to grow up to be the next handsome young accordion star of the airwaves. I, on the other hand, had my mind set on being the next star center fielder for the Yankees.

For better or worse, neither came to pass. But I’ll bet you one thing; Mickey Mantle never had any accordion doors in his bedroom.

the aspiring center fielder takes a detour

the aspiring center fielder takes a detour

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The Creel Affair

April 13, 2015

Each of us gathers an assortment of knowledge throughout our lives. Some of it was the result of a directed effort, as in school, to attain a specific goal. However, much like that one drawer in our homes that has a wild assortment of odds and ends that were picked up incidentally along the way, so too does our brain have a miscellaneous collection of strange and often useless information.

Useless, that is, unless you play Scrabble.

I think Scrabble is an acquired taste. I say this because those times when it is suggested as an activity, quite a few members of whatever group is present will opt out, often immediately and vehemently.

I happen to like Scrabble. I like the combination of chance (getting good letter tiles and spaces in which to use them) and skill. Most of all, I like the opportunity to dip into that assortment of extraneous knowledge residing in the back corner of my brain.

One such occasion occurred while on a family vacation in the state of Washington. We were staying in the gloriously rustic Timberline Lodge (the hotel in The Shining) on the slope of Mt. Hood. After supper as we relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lobby, someone in the family found Scrabble in the game bin and asked if anyone was interested. I was willing, as was Paula, my sister-in-law, with whom I had played before. We had a bit of a history with this game; she often accused me of making up words when we played (untrue, of course). She, an eminent New York City children’s book publisher, was highly competitive, so the games were usually rather lively. This time proved no exception.

The game was drawing to an end; few letter tiles remained. Paula and I were far in the lead, and our scores were fairly even. Each move would now be critical.

It was my turn. I studied my letters and the spaces available on the board that would get the highest return. I had my eye on a “double word score” spot. There was a strategically located “c” on which to build. Then I spotted it: the perfect word. I coolly placed the tiles down, reaching the double word score space with the final one.

“Creel?!?” Paula cried out in disbelief. “What kind of word is that? You’re making them up again!”

“No, Paula, it’s a word. It’s a piece of equipment used for fishing.”

“Well, I never heard of it. What the hell is a creel?”

Now had the movie Slum Dog Millionaire been out, it would have been an easy analogy. The accidental, or fateful in the view of some, acquisition of certain random pieces of knowledge is unplanned but can suddenly become useful in ways one would not have predicted. I was never that deeply involved in fishing, but somewhere along the line, I learned about the creel.

“You mean ‘reel,’ don’t you?” Paula continued.

“No, creel. It’s a basket hanging from the shoulder that fishermen use for the fish they catch.”

Normally I would follow this by, “Look it up if you want.” However, as we were tourists in the pre-smart phone era, no dictionary was available, and Paula was not about to take my word for it.

Just at that moment, a gentlemen with camouflage pants and a cap with fishing flies attached — surely an outdoorsman — walked by. Here’s my chance, I thought.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you fish?”

“Yes, I do,” he amiably answered as any fisherman with a prospective audience would do.

Paula stiffened, watching attentively in case an attempt at some conspiratorial clue were to be made.

“Do you know what a creel is?” I asked in my most objective tone, eyes fastened on Paula to show my compliance with her unstated demand.

“Why, sure,” he replied, smiling at such an elementary query. “It’s the basket we use to put our catch in.”

I raised my eyebrows in a gesture asking Paula if this was acceptable evidence. She scowled and conceded with a dismayed, “Oh, all right!” The points I gained turned out to be the game-winning difference.

I haven’t played Scrabble with Paula since. I believe she still harbors suspicion that I somehow set up that encounter with the fisherman. I have never had the occasion to use the word “creel” again, either.

So if you ever worry about the clutter of facts floating around in your noggin for no good reason, don’t fret. One of them may come in handy one of these days. After all, there’s always a Scrabble game going on somewhere.