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Inka Dinka Doo-Doo

When I was growing up the only people who had tattoos were either members of the military (especially sailors) who often sported the depiction of an anchor or a banner with the word “Mom” tatted on their biceps as a show of machismo pride, or they were “freaks” in the sideshow of travelling circuses whose entire bodies served as graffiti walls for tattoo artists.  With the exception of these sideshow “freaks” (which sometimes were women like “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” of Marx Brothers’ movie fame), men were the only ones who had tattoos.  Now, however, according to a recent Harris poll, American women who have tattoos outnumber men 23% to 19% in 2012.  But it is not only the increasing popularity of tattoos among both sexes that disturbs me, it is the degree of dermatological territory that tattoos now occupy.

I can understand the placement of a tastefully designed tattoo on a bicep or perhaps some other discrete location on the body which is meant to be seen only by those who are privy to his or her body art.  However, I cannot comprehend the flagrant display of tattoos which crawl out of shirts and blouses onto hands, necks, heads and faces like ugly monsters distorting human features in an obvious cry for attention.  Now I realize that there has always been a fascination (especially among the youth) with protesting the values of the previous generation by the adoption of rebellious fads to announce their presence as a force in society.  However, these fads have generally been relatively harmless forays into the realm of clothing fashion and hair styling.  I remember “pegged pants” and “d—- a—” haircuts for guys as markers for those of my generation.  Moreover, in my many years of teaching high school, I witnessed the ever-changing fads in these areas (some more extreme than others) but all of them transitory in nature: one could always buy a new wardrobe, let one’s hair grow out, or even remove a piercing and let the body repair the damage.

The problem (as I see it) with tattoos is that they are permanent!    Exuberant choices made in a drunken or drug-induced state, through peer pressure, or in the throes of passion may not prove to be so wise or wonderful the next day or in years to come.  But unlike a poor fashion choice that one can relegate to a closet or consign to a charity clothing center, tattoos will always remain as part of the wearer’s wardrobe and never completely disappear.  A recent example comes to mind in the person of Kelly Osbourne who sought acknowledgement from her dysfunctional family by emulating the “Goth-look” of her generation, not only with clothing, makeup, and hairstyles, but by submitting her body to several minor-league tattoos.  Now that she has grown up to be her own person and found celebrity as a fashion-trend commentator, her tattoos are an obvious hindrance to her credibility and (according to celebrity magazines) she is taking steps to have most of her 15 tattoos removed through expensive laser surgery.

Unlike Kelly’s circumstances (she has celebrity parents and lots of connections), finding a job — much less a profession — that countenances the wearing of obvious tattoos is difficult.  The only professions that come to mind are those in the construction trades and restaurant chefs.  I know that there are some employers in customer service industries that desire to attract consumers who approve of or are “turned on” by such body art, but frankly, I don’t want such a repugnantly defaced body approaching me in a store or serving my food in a restaurant, and I avoid those businesses that don’t consider my need for a “normal” human aesthetic. If I want to see a “freak show,” I’ll go to the circus.  

Although I know that many people will consider my views on this topic to be “old-fashioned” or perhaps even prejudiced, they should consider that this blog is entitled, Senioritis, and is intended to represent just this point of view.  I am quite aware that there are many societies that value tattoos as a part their religious or cultural heritage, but our western society is not one of them, and I question our direction in encouraging this disfiguring fad among our youth.  Ultimately, I imagine the fate of millions of human canvases that may be destined in their old age to be relegated to society’s attic or discarded among the detritus of humanity like an old, faded comic book.

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The Writing on the Wall

Writing on the WallIf one considers the most primitive forms of communication, one imagines that they consisted primarily of grunts, gestures, and facial expressions. Eventually, someone came up with the idea of sketching ideas on a flat surface (like a cave wall) and provided yet another component to communication — writing. Communication was becoming an art.

Throughout the next several centuries, the art of communication improved with the development of language, the invention of the printing press, and other advances that fostered the dissemination of ideas.  Eventually, access to knowledge through the communication of ideas provided the key to mankind’s advancement in the world!

In recent decades, however, the so-called advancements in communication technology seem to have stymied this progress.   It seems that the very technology designed to improve communication has led to a form of paralysis that is quickly becoming epidemic. 

In the days of the caveman, face-to-face communication required the use of several senses to communicate with others.  Not only did our primitive ancestors hear the words that the other spoke, they were able to distinguish tone and other elements that delineated intended meaning more precisely.  In addition, they were able to see facial expressions and gestures which further amplified their ability to comprehend. 

We see remnants of this primitive form of communication even today.  Consider how many of us negotiate our way through a foreign country even though its citizens don’t speak a word of English, and we have little or no proficiency in theirs, by using this multi-layered form of communication.  In the absence of a common language, we resort to more primitive behavior to make ourselves understood.  We point to a block of cheese or a puffy, cream-filled pastry in a glass case, smile, and madly nod our heads in order to procure the tempting treat.  We draw sketches on a napkin, gesture with our hands, and make faces or strange sounds to implore where we might find the nearest restroom.  In short, we use any resource of communication required to make ourselves understood . 

However, I now contend that due to the recent proliferation of electronic communication devices in our society even people of a supposedly common language are regressing in their ability to interact effectively with one another.

Although the telephone (and more recently the mobile phone) provides us with the ability to hear one another, it is (with the exception of Skype, a computer-based phone application) a one-dimensional medium.  Most effective phone communication relies on recognizing inflection and tone as well as the spoken word.  But, the efficacy of this device, of course, relies on the ability of the caller to actually reach the intended party without having to “leave a message at the tone” or to pass through a maze of frustrating call options.  There was a time, before annoyance calls from solicitors or pollsters, when people actually were glad when the phone rang for it usually meant that a “friend” was calling.  Now people rely on call monitoring devices such as an answering machine or “Caller I.D.” to screen their calls and block the receipt of only the most desired calls.

Faced with this technology, callers often leave messages of dubious quality (for example, omitting to mention their names or the reason for their call) or refuse to leave any message at all.  Even if the caller leaves a message, there is no guarantee “when” or “if” the recipient will reply, sometimes resulting in the round-robin experience known as “telephone tag.”

Frustrating as telephone technology may be, the invention of the internet ushered in a whole new array of electronic wizardry that signaled the more current decline in the art of communication. The first form of electronic communication to emerge was the e-mail.  Since most people in the United States owned or had access to a computer, it became possible to send messages of any length electronically through cyberspace to intended recipients with a click of a mouse.  For those of us who still care about the correct use of the English language, these messages were (and still are) composed in the form of complete sentences following the rules of spelling and punctuation that are required of other written art forms. 

It seems that in an effort to save time, many users of e-mail have become increasingly callous or lazy and so have resorted to using fragmented language, misspelled words, and little or no punctuation leaving the reader in a quandary as to their intended meaning.  Some scribes channel the writing style of e. e. cummings using only lower case characters to compose, while others rely on using just the upper case, leaving us to assume that the person writing is angry with us.

However, my main complaint with e-mails (which should serve the function of providing a speedy, accurate form of written communication to save time, effort, and postage or telephone charges) is that, after I have spent a considerable amount of time and thought composing an e-mail, the recipient feels that a quick remark such as “Done” or “Okay” is a sufficient response.  In many cases, I have received no response whatsoever.  Call me “old- fashioned,” but I consider this to be just plain rude

The more recent “developments” in electronic communication, texting and tweeting, which require the use of an enabled cell phone or, better yet, a “smartphone” (an oxymoron, if ever I heard one) are even more distancing.  First of all, the fact that messages must be composed using tiny alphanumeric buttons requires the user to possess both good eyesight and digital dexterity (dwindling capacities among seniors such as I).  But more importantly, because the “bonus” of using this technology is the time-saving instant communication it provides (tweeting limits the message to only 140 characters), one must now learn an increasingly confusing and mind-numbing list of texting abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols that often have little (if any) relationship to “real” language.  The use of emoticons like a “smiley face” or simple abbreviations such as “BYOB” might be suitable and readily understood by most people in these quick exchanges, but when one is faced with abbreviations  such as “LOL” (laughing out loud), “BTW” (by the way), not to mention such esoteric runes as “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) or “FOMCL” (falling off my chair laughing), one has to be either psychic or trained in deciphering code to discern the meaning without the aid of a texting dictionary which would seem to defeat the purpose of “instant communication.”

It may just be that I’m refusing to be dragged into the future of communication, but I question the “advances in technology” that have made us less able to clearly and accurately communicate with one another in ways that actually enhance the bonds between us. 

Instead these new forms of communication technology seem designed to alienate us from one another.  I watch people walking down the street completely absorbed in their I-Phones oblivious to the humanity or world around them; I’ve even observed some evidently avoiding their companions by texting them across the table rather than engaging in “real” conversation.  Perhaps they have forgotten how to speak meaningfully or earnestly: how many times have you heard the phrase “you know” used to ineffectively replace a clear idea?  And as to the ability to write with any sense of cogency — well, I think that ship may have already sailed.

It seems that the beauty of communication forms that were once prized as “art” is fading into the distant past: a few more steps and we’ll be back to grunting and drawing on the walls of our caves.

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A Dirt-Speckled Lollipop

Child With Dirt-Speckled Lollipop

Child With Dirt-Speckled Lollipop

When I was a child I remember bursting into tears if I dropped my lollipop on the ground.  However, before I became completely inconsolable, my mother would pick up the lollipop from where it lay on the lawn or gravel path, brush off the larger particles of attached debris and return it to me with the comforting advice: “Here – It’s fine.  Besides, you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” 

Somehow that bit of advice has stuck with me over all these years.  In a similar vein, you will not be surprised if I tell you that I also hold to the “five second rule” of edibility regarding most food items that have fallen to the floor.   As with the lollipop, I consider that most food of a solid variety that has fallen on a relatively clean surface need only be brushed or rinsed off before being consumed.  Now I know that many of you may be totally disgusted by this admission; however, considering that I have rarely been sick in my life, it may be worth reconsidering my mother’s maxim.

While I’m doubtful that there is much scientific evidence to support the exact quantity of dirt that must be eaten before one passes, I remain convinced that ingesting a certain amount on a somewhat regular basis provides one with a modicum of immunity from germs that may lie in wait. 

Humans, after all, are only animals at their core.  Except for some domesticated varieties that have their own food bowls, most animals eat food that has been placed or fallen on the ground.  Even toddlers prefer to eat their food with their hands off the tray of their high chair (if they are provided with such luxury).  If they are left to their own devices, they will taste whatever they find as they crawl across the floor and decide for themselves if it is palatable.  How many episodes of AFV have featured children eating their own “boogers”?    I recently saw one episode that included a clip of a youngster trying to eat a live toad.  In any case, anyone who has observed a child in the wild has to admit that its natural inclination is to try to eat whatever it finds, and (if one is truthful) it might very well have succeeded when “unobserved.”

Consuming an inevitable amount of naturally occurring bacteria is an innate human habit, but those who own a controlling financial stake in our “society” have perversely decided that this is a behavior that must be “corrected.” Moreover, I think that many parents today make a great mistake in being not only “overprotective” of their children in the greater sense, but especially in trying to protect them from all “germs.”  

Manufacturers of household cleaning products and pharmaceutical companies have been in the forefront of a self-serving campaign against germs.  Their message is clearly cautionary and obviously intended to frighten parents into over-reactionary responses.  We are told that it is imperative to clean and disinfect nearly every surface in our homes on a constant basis.  We are barraged with commercials that depict the “stupid husband” diapering a baby or cleaning his tools on the kitchen counter or  that show children sneezing near a food preparation area.  “Quick!  Get out a disinfectant wipe! Use a hand sanitizer!”  The newest products in this arena go way beyond a cloth-soaked solution of bleach or a quick spray of Lysol: the single-use disinfectant wipes pop-up one-at-a-time from a hermetically-sealed container; the hand sanitizer comes in a dispenser that is activated by a motion-sensor.  We are given the impression that re-using a sponge or even touching a dispenser will expose us or others to some deadly disease like the plague.  I can’t go into a grocery store without finding a dispenser containing sanitized wipes next to the shopping carts; many public buildings now have hand sanitizers near the elevators and staircases; the list is endless.  I could almost understand it if we were in the middle of a serious flu pandemic, but this type of over-vigilance seems to border on the paranoid.

Now I’m not saying that we should sneeze on others indiscriminately or handle food after cleaning the toilet, but exercising common preventative measures such as washing one’s hands or cleaning a food prep area with hot, soapy water should be sufficient.

It is my contention that one of the reasons so many people, especially children, are sickly today is that they are never exposed to enough germs to build up any sort of immunities.  When I was a kid, we were purposely exposed to others who had contracted measles, mumps, or chicken pox so that we could get these diseases out of the way when we were children and the effects of the diseases were still relatively harmless.  We didn’t stay home from school if we had a little cough or didn’t feel well; our foreheads were felt, temperatures taken, and (unless we were determined to be “really sick”) usually sent off to school anyway.

Instead of trying to sanitize the natural world around us, health precautions then consisted of common sense actions: consuming a well-balanced diet which meant eating what was put in front of us [vegetables that we didn’t like were decreed “good for you”]; taking a dose of cod liver oil (it tasted as bad as it sounds) every morning during the winter months as part of a vitamin-boosting regimen; hydrating regularly with water, milk and natural fruit juices; as well as promoting other good eating and drinking habits. 

In addition, we were required to get plenty of exercise year round. I can still hear my mother saying, “Go out and play!  It’s nice out” [“nice out” translated to “not in the middle of a thunderstorm or blizzard”].  We rode bicycles (without helmets) as we raced one another or explored the countryside; we climbed trees and hung and swung from their branches in preparing for our circus careers; we built snow forts and tree houses as ramparts against our enemies; we exercised our bodies and stretched our imaginations naturally.  We were allowed to be children and take chances in life to prepare us for an adult world that might be fraught with a lot more dangerous things than a few germs.

One could do worse than eat a dirt-speckled lollipop.

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Zoekeeper Wanted

Spending three weeks this winter in the warm paradise of Zihuatanejo, Mexico was an idyllic respite from the world.   Our hotel was tucked into an escarpment just south of the former fishing village and provided its guests with a securely civilized setting in which to enjoy its sybaritic delights.  My favorite form of relaxation each day was to lie on a lounge reading a book or napping under a palapa beside the pool overlooking the bay. 

One day, however, my respite (and that of other vacationers) was suddenly disrupted by the sounds of a demon offspring who had been set loose at the pool by her handlers. This creature’s primary way of communicating was to scream in a high pitch and with unbridled passion to indicate either great joy or greater discontent.  Apparently she had learned from her indulgent parents that “screaming” was the most effective way to gain suitable attention (either that or she had been trained as a form of humanoid alarm system that could set neighborhood dogs barking in the event of an emergency).

Now don’t get me wrong, there were a few other small children that were accompanied by their families at poolside during our stay, but any noises they emitted were in the range of human tolerance and could be easily ignored as cries of harmless joy.  This child was different: she obviously was an only or at least first child, doted upon by parents and grandparents alike.  She had  been pampered to the point that she now required a level of gratification that only constant, undivided attention could provide.  

She had been named Zoe, a name (according to my dictionary) taken from an indigenous tribe of the Brazilian Amazon.   Apparently, the care and feeding instructions given to the “Zoekeepers” deemed it necessary to consult this tribal namesake in a placating tone in order not to provoke a primal outcry: “Zoe, would you like to go on the water slide with Daddy?” – “Zoe, could you eat your fruit for Daddy?” – “Zoe, can you tell Mommy what’s wrong?” – “Zoe, can you roll over and play dead?” (The last one is mine.)  Obviously, this tactic rarely produced the desired results . . . the screaming only continued, generally louder than before.

One day, Zoe’s screams were not only too much for those of us surrounding the pool to take, but also pierced the solitude of guests in the terraced hotel rooms that overlook the pool and bay.  One such guest (it wasn’t me) finally shouted what everyone had been thinking: “Would you shut that child up!”

The reaction of the Zoekeepers was immediate and predictable: they turned, first to the guest who had berated them and then to one another, incredulous and silent at first. Then “Daddy,” apparently feeling that he had to defend his paternal right to subject the assembled hotel guests to his child’s outrageous behavior, indignantly replied, “She’s just a child!  Can’t a child have a little fun?”  Just one look at the silent faces of the guests surrounding the pool revealed the unanimous answer in their expressions: an emphatic, “No!”

In minutes, Zoe’s freedom to shriek was revoked.  As she emitted one more blood-curdling scream, she was picked up by her handlers, whisked away, and apparently returned to her cage in their hotel room.  Once again, we found ourselves free to smile, relax, read, or nap in the sun without fear of aural attack. 

It seems that not all wild creatures are suitable for domestication.

Wild child in cage

Wild child in captivity

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Reflection On A Life in Shreds

I apologise to my regular readers.  I know that many of you have wondered what has happened to me since I have not posted anything for several months.  The fact is I experienced what is commonly known as “writer’s block.”  Although I started more than four postings since November, none of them seemed right.  They all felt like just plain griping without benefit of humor or purpose.  So, rather than subject my readers to this period of non-inspiration,  I decided not to post anything.
Now I am ready to post again . . . not that this post is necessarily funny, but it does explain perhaps the source of my “funk.”  I’ll be interested to hear your feedback.  Thanks for your patience.

Now that I am retired, I’ve come to grips with the idea of downsizing.  As part of this process, I decided to go through my file cabinets and get rid of all the documents that I no longer needed instead of giving someone else the dubious pleasure of going through cartons of paper after I’ve passed on.   You see, being the product of a family that saved everything – “in case you might need it someday” – I have held on to nearly every single piece of paper that I ever produced or received that demarked my life.

Now those of you who have only lived in the age of computers and others of a more frivolous nature might consider this habit to border on the obsessive-compulsive, but you have to understand that I come from a long line of hoarders.  Because they had houses that had attics, basements, and sometimes barns or other outbuildings, my parents and grandparents always had room to store anything considered of value.  I suspect that much of this hoarding came as the result of experiencing  “the great depression,” but in any case, a habit was established early in my life that still echoes in my ears: “You’re not going to throw that away are you?  It’s still good; someone might be able to use it.” 

My childhood was an age of frugality.  We cycled before it was even fashionable. We saved empty jars with screw-on covers because they could be used to store objects such as nuts, bolts, nails, buttons, or paper clips.  We recycled brown paper bags to cover books, drain bacon, or wrap a gift,.  We were taught to save everything (rubber bands, newspapers, string, etc.) for the proverbial “rainy day.” Is it any wonder, then, that I developed a habit that has persisted to this very day?

I have been far more nomadic than my parents and grandparents, and I have not been able to hold on to everything that I would like.  However, despite my moves to four different states, I have managed to hold on to a modest number of possessions (especially furniture or articles that I consider to be antiques or family heirlooms) for which I hope to find good homes some time in the future.

However, my biggest storehouse of treasures has been my collection of paper artifacts:

  • brochures detailing every possible home improvement product or appliance aggregated for years from home shows and showrooms, not to mention all the warranties and operating instruction booklets that accompany each product that we purchased over the years (many of which we no longer have);
  •  magazines such as Gourmet, Cuisine, and others kept on file in case I ever wanted to go back to find an exquisite recipe for rabbit stew;
  • copies of lessons, study guides, models, quizzes, tests, etc. from over 40 years of teaching kept on file in the event that I ever wanted to refer to them over the years for re-invention or re-use;
  • personal folders filled with documents, certificates, letters, and cards labeled with such headings as Transcripts, Resumes, Teaching Evaluations, Letters of Resignation, Letters of  Recommendation, Laurels and Kudos.

Getting rid of items in the first category did not present much of a problem.  After all, it seemed unlikely that I would ever need any of the brochures or instruction booklets that I had collected (except for current appliances).  But the hoarding instinct runs deep —when we were remodeling the house, I collected brochures on nearly any product that we might need: doors, windows, paint, lighting . . . you name it, I had a brochure on it.  Not that I ever referred to any of these when the time came to make a purchase; it was just the idea that I could.

So too with my collection of magazines.  There was a time when I would rifle through these in search of a wonderful dessert presentation or a tasty take on halibut, but now I lack the patience, time, or inclination to plow through a stack of magazines in search of such ideas.  Instead I rely on such internet resources as foodtv.com to supply me with suggestions as to how I might create an instant culinary masterpiece from whatever lies in the refrigerator or freezer.

However, the remaining categories presented me with a much greater challenge: I found that I couldn’t dispose of any of these without reading them first.  Suddenly, I was faced with written artifacts that defined me and looking through them reminded me of the journey that I had taken to become who I am.  Believe me, shredding each became an increasingly delicate process of excising the collected remnants of a time gone by.

I began with a four-drawer cabinet filled with copies of nearly every document that I had collected or created for use in my English classrooms over nearly four decades of teaching.  When I began the task of destroying these  tests, quizzes, study guides, models, and other materials, I thought it would be easy to just toss them into the shredder since there was no doubt that I would ever have use for them again.  Yet, this task proved to be more difficult than I imagined.

To begin with, I had the insane idea that the contents of every folder had to be shredded in the event that some aberrant scenario should arise [such as a trash collector or dumpster diver deciding to go into teaching as an alternate profession using my materials].  In truth, I  realized that, despite the fact that I had archived all these materials for use at some time in the future, this envisioned future was never going to come.  The future of education was already here, and it looked bleak. 

So, although getting rid of all this junk was supposed to be a joyously liberating experience, it became a source of wistful nostalgia instead.  When I began looking over the contents of these many folders and perused the assignments, worksheets, and tests that I had given to high school students over 20 years ago, I quickly realized that these materials were now too challenging for even the college students that I had most recently tried to teach just a couple of years ago. So, instead of just tossing out all these now-useless materials, I found myself reading through most of them to remind me of the level of education that I had once been a part of and sadly reflecting on what had happened to a once-honored profession in America. A housekeeping task that should have taken less than an hour ended up taking days and weeks of remembrance as I shredded every product of my years of teaching . 

My next task was to go through the two-drawer filing cabinet containing my personal folders to decide which could be emptied and which were still too valuable to toss.  Even though I would no longer be needing transcripts, resumes, or teaching evaluations, I still found myself reading each (especially the evaluations) before tossing them into the shredder because, as I perused them, they suddenly took on an emotional significance that I had never considered.  After all, the folders of transcripts, diplomas, and certificates provided historic proof of my academic achievement over the years and the folder containing my resumes added to this historical record.  In addition, the resumes reflected my ever-restless nature as I moved from place to place (MA, CA, VT, and WA) and my adaptability as I moved from job to job (teacher, editor, retail salesman, fast food manager, and others) inevitably returning to the teaching profession. 

As I read through these, I took renewed pride in my ability to craft each resume to make sense out of my employment through clever editing and by focusing on my skills and aptitudes.  I also noted how I had adapted the style and format of each resume to suit the changing times and technologies.  Although I have no intention of applying for another job, I have kept an updated resume in my file “just in case . . . .”   I’ve learned: never say “Never.”

The folder containing my teaching evaluations was one of the most fascinating to read, not just for the insight it gave into my teaching abilities, but because it provided a contrasting study in the changing level of detail that comprised each evaluation.  In the 70’s and 80’s most of my evaluations consisted of hand- or type-written comments on the lesson being observed by a department head or administrator who observed the entire lesson and used the evaluation as part of his/her mentoring program.  Helpful comments related to class control, learning objectives, clarity of instruction, attention to student needs, diversity of teaching methods, and appropriateness of assignments were among the many topics covered in each evaluation.  Unlike many of those that followed in later years relying primarily on bubbling-in generic responses on a computer-readable form, the early evaluations told me something personal about my teaching and gave concrete, specific suggestions for improving my skills.  I’m sure that much of the “failure” of today’s schools lies with the fact that most teaching observations (if they exist at all) are cursory, incomplete, and offer little opportunity for teachers to receive the help and mentoring they so desperately need.

The next folder that I tackled was that containing copies of all the letters of resignation that I had written over the years.  As I read each, it became apparent that I was a big “bridge-burner” back in the days when optimism ruled. The primary source of my “dissatisfaction” seemed to be policy or hierarchical changes that I perceived as adversely affecting my ability to do things “my way.”   Unlike many of my former colleagues, the promise of “tenure” was never the carrot to entice me to remain at any one position for longer than I felt necessary.  As a matter of fact, the longest I ever remained at one job in my entire life was nine years as a teacher at Wachusett Regional High School in Massachusetts from which I resigned in grand fashion, including a letter to the local paper that listed my growing dissatisfaction with the teaching profession [never mind a match, I used a molotov cocktail on that bridge].  

I’d like to believe that perhaps I was ahead of my time in constantly moving from one job to another, learning new skills and gaining new knowledge along the way: a “lifelong learner’ even before it became the necessity that it is today, but I’m sure it had more to do with my restless nature and belief that there was always something better just around the corner.

I’m finished with shredding for the time being.  The remaining personal folders containing letters of recommendation, as well as nearly every card, letter or e-mail that I ever received commending something that I did well over these many years will remain in their folders.  I now realize that these will always be the touchstones of my life, and having access to them is an important part of my “raison d’etre”.

There are other artifacts such as my address book and theater scrapbooks that I consider to be treasures too, for they also contain sources of retrospection. Each entry, scrap of paper, or photo captures a snapshot of a moment . . . a face, a place, a space in time.  It’s amazing how many memories each can generate, and how difficult it becomes to turn the page and move on to the next. 

 I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to leave something for my heirs to contend with . . . maybe just a boxful.

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We the People?

Today is Tuesday, November 6, 2012, Election Day.  I chose today as appropriate to take a reminding look at the Preamble to the Constitution for the United States of America.  I am struck by its simple, declarative structure setting forth its purpose and shocked at how far we strayed from it.  While I have no idea how this election will turn out, I do know that something has happened here in these United States of America that its founders never envisioned: a Divided States of America. Therefore, I entreat every candidate who wins this election on the local, state, and national level to reconsider the purpose of our constitution and do all they can to return us to its central tenants.

For those of you who may not have the Preamble to the Constitution memorized, here it is:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence (sic.), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The first phrase, the subject of the sentence, “We the People of the United States,” clearly states that the directive of the Bill of Rights and subsequent Amendments is shared by a group, the People of the United States.  But where is the “We” in America today?  Somehow, everything in our society today has come to be focused on the individual, not the group.

I am firmly of the mind that this shift toward the more selfish personal pronouns, “I, me, and my” instead of “We, us, and our,” is the deliberate work of Corporate America and its partners in crime, mass media and communication technology.  I believe that Microsoft began the trend with its “My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music” giving users of its software the impression that their collections were uniquely personal and special.  Soon other companies followed their lead in focusing on the individual.  The personal focus was obviously intended to give people the impression that somehow these companies actually “cared” about each and every customer.  Each wanted to know more about you: What were your tastes and preferences?  How could they “customize” your experience with them?  It worked.  Thousands of people gave up their personal information to a corporate identity whose sole purpose was to use it to further alienate you from others and make you a “devoted customer” who could now be barraged by an incessant blizzard of advertising stratagems.  However, any real care for the individual vanished. Customer service became a nirvana attained only through the most persistent efforts to navigate labyrinthine phone or online menus; speaking to a “real” person who could answer your question or actually “do something” about your problem was an ever-evanescent dream.

Corporate America was not the only one to encourage a move toward the “me generation”; mass media also made a shift from the group to the individual.  When I was growing up, there were only three TV stations, ABC, NBC, and CBS.  Everyone in the country who owned a television watched one of these stations and the familiar programming that each presented every week.  For example, programs like “I Love Lucy” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” were staples of the majority of the viewing public.  You knew that you could “share” your viewing experience with any number of people at school or work the next day.  Newspapers and magazines provided much the same exposure: a few giant publications (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Life, Look, Time, National Geographic, and others) provided common fodder for millions of conversations across the country.  This is not to say that these media were unbiased, but at least nearly all Americans were exposed to the same prejudices and could argue from the same set of assumptions.

Today, there are hundreds of TV networks to choose from, so you can follow only those that suit your tastes or prejudices without fear of their being “tainted” by any other views.  In addition, most of the major magazines and newspapers have gone the way of the Dodo or been reduced to shadows of their former glory [I’m partial to the belief that a large part of this phenomenon is due to the fact that people don’t (or can’t) read anymore].  Gone are the topics of mutual interest (with the possible exception of sporting contests) that generated conversations around the “water cooler” [As a matter of fact, gone is the water cooler or any equivalent spot where people gathered to “share” their views on life].  Instead people are isolated in cubicles, tethered to their computers or headphones, or otherwise distanced from other members of society.  No longer do people gather in the workplace (if they have a workplace) even to share a lunch; instead they eat at their desks or work remotely from home or automobile so they don’t even have to socialize with others.

But perhaps the most significant force to draw people away from a focus on “we” to “I” is the technology explosion of recent decades.  One such technology was the inception of “social networks” which began with one called “MySpace” a precursor of “Facebook” that allowed people to share their pictures, gossip, likes, dislikes, songs, and other banalities of their humdrum lives with other “friends” in cyberspace.  Simultaneously and since then, the proliferation of these “social networks” and their ilk (U-tube, i-tunes, Twitter, etc.) have made the accessing and sharing of personal information and peccadilloes an American pastime and obsession.  However, there is nothing “social” about these networks and their adjunct technologies.  Look around you: Everywhere there are people plugged into earphones, gazing at their i-pods, or tapping out a message to “friends” but isolated from the very world around them.  Some have reportedly been so oblivious to the world around them while plugged in that they have been hit by cars or trains.  I’ve even observed couples texting to one another across a table in a restaurant rather than converse face to face.  [How on earth will they produce children?]

But these are topics that I have touched on before.  The point is that all of these forces: big business, the media, and recent technology have made our society so selfishly fixated on the individual to the exclusion of the group that many no longer feel any obligation to live up to the oath that underlies our constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . .”

It’s time for the Nation to return to one governed by “We the People” and live up to the promises that it made back in 1787.  Here’s hoping that tomorrow’s elected representatives get the message that our founders left for them 225 years ago.

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The Wedding: A Hollywood Production

Do you remember weddings when we were growing up?  I remember them as festive, yet simple affairs that celebrated the at-least-momentary joy of a young couple uniting in marriage.

Generally the ceremony itself was conducted in a church, synagogue, or judicial chambers officiated by a member of the clergy or magistrate of the court.  Sometimes the couple had just a couple of witnesses to their commitment and perhaps a small group of close family and friends in attendance.  At others, they had an entire retinue of tuxedoed or taffetaed attendants as well as a large gathering of extended family, friends, associates, and wedding-crashers.

Determined largely by budget constraints, the reception was either held at someone’s home or garden or in a nearby hall such as the Franco- American Club or a hotel ballroom.  The choice of food (if there was a choice) ranged from spaghetti and meatballs or chicken pot pie to prime rib or Lobster Newberg.  Often there was music, in the old days by a local band that could play the popular tunes of the day as well as “tribal” favorites or later provided by a deejay who had a stack of “platters” on deck, to respond to guest requests.

And finally, after a day of vowing and crying, dining and dancing, and the requisite cutting of the wedding cake, throwing of the bouquet, and tossing of the garter, the happy couple changed into their travelling clothes and took off in a tin-can-trailing, crepe-paper-festooned car to their blissful honeymoon in Niagara Falls or the Poconos.

How times have changed.  Now, there are feature films based on the wedding ritual [Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Wedding Planner, Bridesmaids, etc.] and entire television reality series devoted to the category [Bridezillas, Say Yes to the Dress, and My Fair Wedding among others] that seem to document some of the worst aspects of the tradition.  Somehow weddings have gone from family-centered, culturally appropriate, personal celebrations to extravagant affairs that involve a team of experts and legions of devoted family members and friends who either volunteer or are impressed into service to pull off a production to rival Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film, The Ten Commandments – “the theme wedding.”

The theme wedding is apparently today’s answer to creating a dream wedding by staging it yourself (with the help of others) – a sort of DIY wedding.  These productions often are centered on a theme chosen by the bride-and-groom-to-be and can be as simply or extravagantly detailed as time, money, and patience will allow.  I recently attended just such a themed production in Los Angeles, and here is my review:

I should have foreseen the production-values-to-come when on January 13th I received the “Save the Date” video-short as an e-mail attachment.  The signs were all there: 1) the couple had a wedding website – TwueWuv.Us  [This immediately boded a sickeningly romantic trend that most of you know runs contrary to my nature] and 2) a black and white silent film which depicted the preordained lovers as two strangers who meet in a vintage railway station and as if by kismet discover that they share a passion for superhero comics [Nerdy enough for ya?] . . . that’s it – love at first sight!  At the end of the film, I was reminded to save September 22, 2012 as the date for the wedding.

In the weeks and months that followed, their website provided more detailed updates to the pages listed in the table of contents: Home & Photo Gallery, Wedding Information, The Wedding Party, Our Story, and Our Honeyfund Registry [Don’t you just want to barf?].  To explain each one in any detail would require more space than this blog posting, your interest, or my intestinal fortitude would allow.  Suffice it to say, there was lots of information included in each category in addition to photos, maps, and web links.

Wedding Information revealed the location of the wedding ceremony and reception: The Fred Harvey Room at Union Station, a once famous restaurant and bar built in 1939 in the Navajo-influenced southwest art-deco architectural style. It also presented the theme: “The Silver Age of Hollywood” – a fictitious era that would encompass the great Hollywood films most beloved by the couple [Yeah, they also are film buffs].

The Fred Harvey Room, located next door to Los Angeles’ Union Station (where the Save the Date video was filmed) provided a perfect setting for a Hollywood-film themed wedding.  There was only one problem: the former Fred Harvey Restaurant closed in 1967 and now the space was just a beautiful shell of its former self – no tables or chairs, no kitchen or bar equipment, not even hot water – everything would have to be provided!  No problem – there would be plans, spreadsheets, lists and instructions that would be disseminated to the design team and 2nd unit volunteers (read family and friends) in the weeks and months before the wedding to cover every aspect the production from beginning to end.

Two major interrelated projects that occupied months of time and effort on the part of the couple were the creation of fourteen different dioramas of films that were considered by the couple to belong to the mythical “Silver Age” which were to be used as table centerpieces, as well as “imitation” movie posters of each film designed by the groom’s talented brother to look like the real thing but incorporating “film buff trivia” and the names of the bride and groom and wedding date into each.  Each diorama centerpiece (crafted from assorted found objects, action figures, fabric, paper, glue, string, wire, etc.) captured the essence of each film including the black and white classic, Casablanca; song and dance favorite, Singing in the Rain; animated fantasy flick, The Nightmare Before Christmas; and action-adventure blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The accompanying 16” x 20” color posters (displayed in the cocktail lounge) were also printed in miniaturized form to serve as a table-assignment cards and mementos of the event – [I’m exhausted just writing this].

Another project, assumed by the mother of the groom, was covering table-top rounds with movie magazine decoupage to create cocktail tables for use in front of each curved banquette in the lounge (remember . . . no furniture).  Each table-top was covered with photos collected from the archives of film magazines representing a different genre of film (adventure, comedy, horror, musical, etc.) – [It is difficult to imagine the number of hours spent collecting, cutting, gluing, and sealing that were involved in this project].

However, in addition to these “pet projects” of those most closely related to the intended couple; there were several that required the assistance of others who either volunteered or were impressed into service.  For example, one “craft night” task that was related to me by a willing participant was the creation of candle reflectors to be used to highlight the dioramas on each table.  The idea was to create small reflectors from aluminum foil-covered cardboard monogrammed on the back with the couple’s initials [simple enough, if you have a steady hand and a talent for crafting].  Apparently, not all volunteers fit the bill, and some of their reflectors were deemed less-than-perfect.  They soon realized that perhaps they should think twice before volunteering again for any duty requiring “craft-worthiness.”

On August 25th, nearly a month before the wedding, Rick and I (as well as 12 other “support team” members) received an e-mail from the couple with the subject heading, Wedding Details and Contacts.  The e-mail contained two attachments.  One attachment provided lists of contact information for a) the members of the wedding party and b) the service providers (caterer, photographer, deejay, etc.).  The other attachment was a spreadsheet providing the most up-to-date directives for all close family and friends as to their assigned duties for the week before the wedding on September 22nd [Rick and I flew into L.A. on Sunday the 16th just to be “on hand”].

The duties of the “support team” ranged from driving a U-Haul to pick-up tables, lighting, and other special equipment to stuffing and sealing envelopes.  For example, on the Tuesday before the wedding, Rick and I arrived at the couple’s apartment to join other volunteers in a last-minute flurry of activities that included Rick gluing the aforementioned decoupaged tabletops to upside-down metal-mesh wastebaskets to create cocktail tables [Is there no end to DIY ingenuity?]. I opted for the easier task of inserting pictures, signage, and posters into frames.  Others stuffed pre-printed envelopes with the table assignment mini-posters or chose the more delicate task of sealing said envelopes using red wax and a monogrammed stamp [I’m not kidding!].

By the end of the week, the deadlines became critical: the liquor, mixers, and garnishes had to be purchased, the tuxes picked up, the rehearsal conducted to eliminate timing and spacing imperfections [marks were actually taped to the floor to insure that wedding attendants “hit their marks”], the delivery trucks unloaded, the lighting, furniture, and flowers arranged . . . .  The duties of Friday and Saturday were now organized by hour rather than by day; everybody was impressed into service and given a timeframe in which to accomplish the assigned tasks [We were even given a deadline to return to the hotel to get dressed for the wedding].

When all was said and done, nearly every aspect of the production had been designed to fit the theme, “The Silver Age of Hollywood.”  One such aspect was that the wedding should resemble a black and white film. To that end, all the “costumes” of the wedding party were in black, white, or silver; in addition, the “props” (bouquets and boutonnieres) were individually and cleverly handcrafted by the bride-to-be out of ribbon, fabrics, and wire (no real flowers were harmed in their making).  In addition, the white tiers of the wedding cake were edged in black and white ribbon that resembled a roll of film, and the cake was topped by action figures of the Princess Bride and Dread Pirate Roberts. Even the “first dance” of the bride and groom had been cleverly choreographed and rehearsed to remind one of a pastiche of dances executed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in films of the 30’s and 40’s [Obviously, no detail was too small to escape attention].

However, when the day finally (and mercifully) arrived, the resultant “production” was a great success.  Nearly every aspect of the weeks and months of planning went off as intended, and the audience appreciated all the work that had gone into it: marveling at each detail, captivated by the intricate twists and turns, and rewarded by the happiness that the ultimate triumph of this insane preparation brought to the deserving couple.

This is not to say that all their engaged friends agreed that this would serve as a model for their own nuptials.  In speaking with several of them, they were of different minds: some thought that eloping or getting married in a simple ceremony followed by a barbeque would do; others might opt for a “big” wedding but would prefer to just pay someone else to do all the planning and execute the details.  But all agreed that “M + J: The Wedding” was the best production they had seen all year and deserved an Academy Award for Best Theme Wedding.

I have to admit, as a former producer and director of high school and community theater productions that were often characterized as “over-the-top”, I was impressed.  A secret part of me envied the couple’s ingenuity and imagination and their doggedness in bringing the most important production of their lives to fruition.  And I am convinced that this spirit will serve them well in their future as a happily married couple.  Therefore, I loudly applaud these producers, Michele and Jeremy Fried.  Congratulations!