Monday, December 25, 2006

The Holidays

A few thoughts on holidays and merriment:

I live in a part of the country where the population is very diverse. Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Bahai, and every denomination of Christian. You name it. Thus, around this time of year, you hear a lot of "happy holiday" greetings, and not a lot of "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah," and so forth.

Now, I'm all for inclusiveness and consideration, but I'm struck by how silly all of this can get. After all, the day is what it is. In my mind, they're all an opportunity to party and have fun, and can't we all use more of that?Do we not say "happy new year" on January 1, despite the fact that the Chinese and Jews and the Bahai, among others, celebrate the new year on other dates? Let me tell you, the Chinese know how to throw a new year's party, so why not have two new year's parties and celebrate with them. I mean, with this agnostic logic people are throwing around, no-one would say "happy birthday" to anyone but themselves or someone else who was born on the same date. So, really, what's wrong with saying 'happy whatever' on the right day?

Another thing: Santa Claus. Around this time of year, you inevitably hear some psychologist on the TV or radio talking about the right time to tell a child the truth about the jolly fat man. Should a parent tell the child before classmates do? How do you tell them?

So many questions, and so much tsimmis. Seems to me that the answer to the Santa question is simple. Who's questioning a stranger who leaves you presents with no expectation of the favor of a return gift? Sure, he sneaks into your house, but who cares, as long as he doesn't walk off with your Playstation? What's so bad about letting kids believe in that as long as humanly possible? There's a Jewish saying about one of the highest forms of charity being a gift where the recipient doesn't know who the giver is. Seems to me that the concept of Santa Claus helps perpetuate that concept. It's a pretty darn nice one, I think you'll agree.

Parents will tell you they might as well fess up because their kids are smart and will easily figure out that it's Mom and Dad who are leaving the toys under the tree. I submit that those are exactly the kids who are going to keep the faith in Santa for as long as possible in the hopes of getting more and more interesting stuff from the jolly fat dude. I mean, why question it? It's just more fun to keep up the charade.

And it also means that you get it all for the price of putting out some cookies and milk. Not a bad deal.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

PR Lady's limerick

She was a doctor of spin
With sound argument she'd always win
Negotiations did fail
When she stepped off the trail
And sank in straight up to her chin.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Coincidence... or Karma?

On September 25, 2005, Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama visited Rutgers University, speaking to a capacity crowd at the school's football stadium.

Three months later, the Rutgers football team was invited to play in a bowl game for the first time in 27 years.

This year, Rutgers football is among the top 15 in the nation, standing at eight wins, no losses to date.

Coincidence? Even considering the dharma of peaceful nonviolence, you have to wonder. Is the Dalai Lama a Rutgers fan, and did he leave some special karma on the Banks of the old Raritan?

UPDATE: I am becoming even more convinced there is some sort of karmic thing going on here. Miraculously, Rutgers won against third-ranked Louisville on November 9, on a field goal in the final seconds of the game ... after missing a first field goal that was declared a do-over when the opposing team committed an offside. The goalposts? Standing in the end zone where the Dalai Lama's stage had stood.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Shock ... awe


May we recommend a nice retirement cottage in the beautiful resort town of Tikrit?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ghosts of Halloweens Past

When I was a kid, I never got to celebrate Halloween, or at least it seemed. My parents have home movies of me and my sister in costumes made from Butterick patterns – Jean was a witch with orange yarn hair hanging from her pointy black felt hat, while the four-year-old me was a ghost with a great big black “BOO” sewn across my front. The next year, I was a bride, and being in first grade, I was eligible to march in the elementary school Halloween pageant. I barely made it through that day at school, and by the time afternoon trick-or-treating came around, I was home in bed with a fever.

That was the start of the sick streak. Like clockwork, I’d come down with the flu, or a cold, or general malaise, during the fourth week of October. Like clockwork, I’d beg my mom to let me go trick or treating nonetheless, and like clockwork, I’d be stuck in bed, listening forlornly as other kids came to ring our doorbell and shout gleefully for treats.

It wasn’t so much the loss of candy that frustrated me. It was the loss of an opportunity to be creative. Every fall, I’d come up with a great costume idea, only to be disappointed, betrayed by my own body. But one year was different.

As the U.S. was starting to get Bicentennial fever, I found the perfect costume idea. I’d be Sybil Ludington. Who didn’t know Sybil? She was the teenager who, in 1777, basically pulled a Paul Revere to organize the militia after a British attack on Danbury, Connecticut. I already had a tri-corner hat from a visit to Philadelphia, and my mom had made me a cape the year before. Conveniently it was made of red, white and blue fabric.

All I needed was a horse. Hmm. Inspiration struck in the form of brown trash bags, some old boxes and a roll of masking tape. After a bit of engineering, I had my horse, complete with a hole in the middle so I could slip it over my head down to my waist. I was set for Halloween!

Then, as the date approached, I felt the flu coming over me. I fought it as much as I could, but on October 31, I had to concede. I was weak and weary, and there was no way I could go to school. It was hopeless.

I was resigned to having all of that good work go to waste, but I still half-heartedly petitioned my mom to let me go trick-or-treating for a half hour, just to take the horse out for a trot. I knew there was no chance; she was the type of parent who firmly believed the truant officers would see me out gallivanting and would send HER to reform school as punishment. A stickler for the rules, she was, and heavily motivated by shame.

Imagine my surprise when she took pity on me and said, sure, go out. Just be careful, and if you start feeling sick, come home. I didn’t give her a chance to change her mind. Faster than you could say “The British are coming,” I donned my cape, hat and horse and was out the door.

The truant officer wasn’t on the street, but some of my classmates were, jibing me for trick-or-treating when I didn’t go to school, as if they wouldn’t have done the same. Despite my declining energy, it was great to be out there, knocking on doors and collecting candy. Countless times I told people no, I wasn’t Paul Revere, and educated them about Sybil Ludington. And several nice people gave me a candy bar for me, and another one for my horse. Not a bad deal all together.

Looking back, I don’t think I lasted 15 minutes before I started feeling queasy, so it’s a good thing I had the horse to increase my draw of loot. Unlike my costume’s inspiration, I might have gotten three blocks or so in my route, but as I walked home, I felt as if I was on the victory lap. I’d finally gotten to go trick or treating, and I’d spread the word on Sybil Ludington, a significant footnote in American history.

The funny thing is that after that year, I was healthy every Halloween, just as I was getting too old for trick-or-treating, anyway. I guess that’s the breaks.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Purell, anyone?

A front page story in today's New York Times notes that many contemporary politicians are taking special steps to reduce their exposure to germs during the customary pressing-of-the-flesh during campaign season. In fact, the wife of a Kansas congressman recently went as far as to squirt sanitizing gel on the hands of people who were waiting to shake hands with Vice President Cheney when he was campaigning for her husband.

No word on whether those same people were looking for Purell to sanitize their hands after shaking hands with Cheney. God only knows what kind of plague they picked up from that bodily contact.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fall in the Watchungs

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Today's New York Times Magazine featured a Q&A with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who's apparently shilling his new book Never Again. As I read the interview, I had one of those "huh?" realizations that gave me one brief, glimmering moment of hope.

One of the questions read, in part, "Would you still defend the president's willingness to disregard the Geneva Conventions in the treatment and torture of suspected terrorists?"

Ashcroft's response: "I think there is a very sound argument for saying that those who violate the Geneva Conventions should not benefit from its provisions."

Now, wait. One could take that as him saying that if we violate the Geneva rules, we can't expect that our soldiers will be treated humanely if they are captured. Am I reading correctly? Is John Ashcroft -- Bush's former attorney general -- agreeing with those who disagree with Bush on torture? Say it ain't so!

Well, folks, sorry to disappoint you , but it ain't so, as the rest of the interview made abundantly clear. Well, at least the part that didn't talk about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The catacombs of Paris

Beneath the streets of Paris are the famed catacombs. Originally a series of quarries built in Roman times, the tunnels were first used for the gory purpose in the late 1700's, when mass graves in standard cemeteries were blamed for the spread of disease. In the second World War, both the French Resistance and the Nazis used the catacombs for their own purposes.

In current times, the catacombs have become a popular tourist destination, accessible through a rather low-key street level door. Once through the entrance visitors descend a circular stairway to the tunnels below.

The scene once you're there is both eerie and intriguing. Bones are piled against the walls, many segregated by type (arms and legs in one pile, skulls stacked in another), and all piles labeled with a sign noting which cemetery they came from, and when. You could just reach out and touch them, but there's that feeling that a bony hand might reach out to touch you back.

Once you've walked through the open portion of the catacombs, you take another stairway up to street level. It's all rather pedestrian, except for the very end. Just before you go outside, you're stopped by two gatekeepers who stand before a sign with the international "No" symbol drawn over a crudely drawn skull and crossbones. The gatekeepers insist -- in French -- on examining your bags to see if you're trying to smuggle out a souvenir.

As if. Try explaining to the TSA what that tibia-shaped thing is that they scanned in your carry-on luggage.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

When you point at someone, remember, there are four fingers pointing back at you.

Now, shut up and eat your clam broth.

Monday, September 25, 2006


Many, many years ago, I used to take short road trips with a friend named Marty. He'd come down from NJIT on a lark, pick me up at my Rutgers dorm and we'd head down Route 27, which eventually became Nassau Street and downtown Princeton.

Acutely aware of the ancient history between Rutgers and Princeton, we'd gone down there a few times at night, plotting the revival of the college rivalry which had died years before. In truth, I think we were a bit in awe of the place. We were both bright kids, good grades and College Boards and all that, but had ended up at state schools. Rutgers has its share of ivy covered walls, but it had long before cut its ties to the Ivy League, and few of its students seemed to care about tradition. I, on the other hand, knew all four verses of the Alma Mater. Marty did, too, even though it wasn't actually his school. Plus I'd just read This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald's chronicle of an angst-ridden Princeton boy. So... it wasn't out of character for us to travel the half hour distance to get some of the tradition back.

One late afternoon, in particular, we found our way down the road and began the unusual (for us) task of wandering around campus in daylight. We decided that we'd see if we could get into Old Nassau, the first building the college constructed. We'd long joked about what we'd do if we were able to break in.

Surprisingly enough, the front door opened when Marty tried the old doorknob, and we found ourselves in a large entryway with marble walls. We walked from one panel to the next, reading the names of the Princeton graduates who'd lost their lives in every American war since the Revolution. The room was quiet for a few moments, but for the footsteps of a campus policeman.

I apologized for being there, figuring we'd gone into forbidden territory, but he said it was okay. "I'm just closing up for the day." He led us out to the front step, asking us about our interest in the building. We chatted for a bit, and then he said he had to finish his rounds.

"They'd kill me if I lost this," he said, pulling a large, centuries-old key from his pocket. As the policeman inserted it into the keyhole and turned it, Marty's eyes met mine, and we shared a smile. He knew what I was thinking: at Rutgers' main building, Old Queens, they'd probably replaced the original lock with a new one. Not long ago, I checked and found it to be so.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Random meeting, lessons learned

On meeting people on my random wanderings around, I sometimes get perspective I didn't expect to receive.

Last year, when I went to an event at the Thomas Edison National Historic Site, my impromptu tour group included an inquisitive New York Times photographer. As we went through various aspects of the site, he continually asked questions, taking more than the usual bored reporter's interest in the subject. Later, when the park ranger was demonstrating how phonograph cylinders were recorded, the photographer practically became part of the story, wedging himself in near the musician and the phonograph technician.

Later on, I noticed him outside one of the buildings and remarked to him that he appeared to truly enjoy his job. As we chatted, I got a quick glance at his press badge and saw his name was Dith Pran. Almost on impulse, I said, "Oh, you're Dith Pran... Sidney Schanberg!"

If you've seen the movie The Killing Fields , you're familiar with their story. During the Vietnam War, Dith had worked as a freelance photographer with New York Times reporter Schanberg. When all the Americans were getting out of Cambodia, Dith was in peril because he had been working with Americans. Schanberg got kicked out of the country but couldn’t get passage for Dith, leaving him to make his way through the Cambodian wilderness for three years, trying not to be caught by the marauding Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, a guilt-wracked Schanberg tried to find his friend and bring him to the US. Eventually they were reunited, and Schanberg helped him get the Times job.

Dith nodded at my mention of Schanberg and told me he really likes his job because he learns a lot of interesting things and meets nice people. He asked me about my interest in Edison, and where I live, mentioning that he has taken a lot of pictures at a park near my home. We chatted for a few more minutes and then parted ways, agreeing that we might cross paths again.

Food for thought. He seems like a happy guy ... taking human interest photos around New York and New Jersey for the Times, perfectly content with the direction his life has taken. I unwittingly gave him the perfect in to start commenting on the miseries of his life -- miseries that few of us could ever conceive of experiencing -- but he didn't. Kinda gives you pause about how great it is that people can come here after such horrible life experiences, and enjoy having a “normal,” mundane life.

His kindness and apparent lack of bitterness made me curious, so I Googled him to recall the whole story. What I found truly struck me. He has created the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project , to bring the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to light. I was truly awed by his directions of How you can make a difference. In addition to a call to boost Congressional awareness of the injustice of letting the genocidal maniacs get away with their reprehensible acts, he takes a truly Buddhist approach to hatred:
  • Don’t react to other people’s anger. When you react, it makes the situation much worse. Anger is a very powerful, negative emotion. Emotion is not the equivalent to logic so no matter how hard you try to reason with people whose minds are filled with anger, they cannot listen to you. Use your energy for something positive instead! When the situation calms down, hopefully then you can work things out.
  • Have tolerance for people of different races and backgrounds. There is no benefit to dislike people just because they are different than you. You heard that wise, old saying, "United we stand, divided we fall." After all, we all share the same planet. Let’s make it a better place. Hatred is not the way.

It definitely makes you realize that, as the Buddhists say, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not." Dith takes peace and tolerance as his guiding principles, after all he's seen and experienced. He clearly believes in the potential of personal action, as well. As individuals, we may not be able to change the world with grand gestures, but we can make an impact on our immediate surroundings. Who knows where that can lead us?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Where's Osama?

Five years ago, on an idyllic late summer day turned surreal and so tragic, I can remember my fear that those who attacked us just a few miles away would take everything I hold dear as an American. The attack on our native soil, the death of thousands of innocent people who were just trying to earn a living ... what would the then-unknown murderers deny us, just because of where we happened to be born? What would we have to do to protect our rights, our freedom?

As an American, I have always treasured my right to think what I want, to say what I want, and to associate with those I want to. Though it's often painful and a bit scary, I've always respected the right of others to speak their minds, however unpopular their opinions. It's part of the equation. With the right to free speech comes the responsibility to let others say what they want. Perhaps to disagree, but always to let them speak.

Patriotism isn't blind allegiance. It's knowing what's right and good about one's country, and having the courage and strength to speak up to protect it, no matter the assailant. That was both the fear and the rage that burned in me that day: rage against the enemy and fear that I would have to channel it into action.

What I never expected on that September day was that my own government would be the biggest threat to our liberties. I never expected to be told that if I disagreed with the president, I was an enemy of the state ("If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists."). I never expected that our fear would be cynically co-opted to divert our attention from the real enemy to settle a personal grudge against a despot who had nothing to do with the attack.

The hijackers hated America enough to kill themselves in the attack. Now even more people hate America with a passion, and we brought it on ourselves. What good does it do?

More people have died in Iraq in the past three and a half years than did on that September day, and it's only put us in greater danger. When will it stop?

Meanwhile the real enemy is out there. And perhaps he wraps himself in the American flag.

Where's Osama, Mr. Bush, and why don't you care?

Monday, August 28, 2006

You can't escape it.

In the countryside of Southwestern Ireland, there's a huge nature refuge called Killarney National Park. Amid all of the greenery, there's a lovely set of lakes, and you can take a boat ride from one end to the castle at the other side.

The boatmen provide facts about the scenery, along with some random conversation and Irish humor. During a lull in his presentation, Dermott, the boatman, asked me where I was from. When I told him "just outside New York," he asked where, exactly, adding that he had been to New York.

"Are you familiar with New Jersey?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," he replied.

"How so?" I inquired, figuring he'd tell me that like many Irish, he has family here that he visits often.

That, however, was not meant to be. "When I was in New York City, I was looking for a Sears store," he told me. "I asked around, and they told me to go to a mall in New Jersey."


I travel over 3000 miles, and I still can't escape the "New Jersey, land of the Malls" label.

I guess it could be worse. At least he didn't ask me if I know Tony Soprano. Or what exit I live at.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

What is going on in this world when an innocent sheep can't go out without being marked with graffiti like a common subway car?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Some cats take their jobs way too seriously.

Jack is a 10 year old cat who lives in the rural town of West Milford, NJ. He doesn't like people much and generally earns his keep by patrolling his family's yard and that of two neighboring homes.

A few weeks ago, Jack's neighbor was looking outside her back window and saw him on the ground, looking up at a treed bear. According to the Newark Star Ledger, she thought, "aw, look at the kitty staring up at the bear!" Then she noticed the bear was looking nervously down at the 15-pound cat.

The bear finally got up enough courage to inch down the tree and jump down. Jack took chase into the woods and treed the bear once again. The bear was rescued, kind of, when Jack's person called him back to the house. Reportedly, the orange tabby sauntered back home and rubbed against the amazed neighbors who'd stopped by to see what the fuss was about.

By explanation, his mom said, "He doesn't want anybody in his yard."

Just goes to show what you can do with an intimidating stare and some cojones. Jack has no claws.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mystery door ... solved

Interestingly enough, it opened very easily when I turned the knob to the left rather than to the right.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mystery door update

As Shellpile readers will recall, I've got a mysterious door in my garage that leads to who knows where. I've got a lead on a good skeleton key, but in the meantime, I noticed today that there's an industrial-grade electrical juncture-type box near the mystery door. On closer examination, it appears to have been a light switch at one time. The actual switch is no longer there, but the hole for the toggle remains. One would think that a light switch would be placed next to a door that led from inside the building to the garage.

Upon closer scrutiny of the building schematics, however, it appears the door may lead to storage space.

In any case, there's still light shining through the keyhole. Wouldn't it be weird if it led to the Asbury Park Casino?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Greetings from Asbury Park
Asbury Park, New Jersey, has seen better days... but apparently things are looking up.

The town was once one of the shining stars of the Jersey shore, with amusement rides, a great boardwalk and a Victorian-era Casino building that extended over the beach and housed a skating rink, tunnel of love and authentic carousel, among other things. Then, for a variety of reasons (corrupt government, urban decay plus the usual yadda-yadda about people forsaking the shore for other more exotic locations (and The Mouse)), the attractions fell into disuse, the buildings were abandoned and started collapsing into themselves, becoming haunted shells of what they once were. (Weird NJ has a great, and more detailed, description of the fall of the amusement mecca)

Now, I've been going down to the Asbury Park boardwalk for several years to take photos of the ruins, or, as the graffiti says, "the debris by the sea." I, like every other New Jerseyan, have heard for years that one scheme or another was going to pull the city out of its doldrums and back to its former glory. The latest attempt is in building a series of luxury condos and renovating the boardwalk attractions. There's already a growing and enthusiastic gay community, the $500,000 condos are selling like crazy, and and many of the shuttered storefronts downtown are now the homes of cute cafes and interior design firms. In other words, this might actually work.

Still, though, I couldn't get the "eeries" out of my system. Every time I go onto that boardwalk, I get this sense of foreboding. The first time I went there to take photos, they all came out blurry. And I'd always take photos of the casino, with its windows blown out and trees growing through its roof. My mind raced with thoughts of what it must look like inside those crumbling walls.

Imagine my surprise when I went down earlier this year and found that the Casino was partially open. It has a new owner who has pledged to renovate it, and they'd opened up the walkway that goes through the building to link the Asbury Park boardwalk with the town of Ocean Grove to the south. Standing at the doorway, I saw that the floor was made of marble, and looking up, I noticed netting up above, hung to catch any falling plaster. And to either side, there were plywood construction barriers on which were hung artists' renderings of the new condos going up. This didn't feel like another attempt doomed to failure. It felt real: maybe Asbury Park is coming back.

As someone else started walking in, I decided to take the plunge. If anything went wrong -- or the building swallowed me up -- I wouldn't be alone. It was chilly inside the building, and I stopped at one of the drawings so I could gather my courage to go farther in. Turned out the other person was a tourist from Holland. He'd been in New York on business and wanted to see the Asbury Park that Bruce Springsteen sings about. I nodded, and as I looked outside and saw people on the boardwalk, enjoying hot dogs and ice cream from boardwalk stores that hadn't been open in years, I said, "It sure is something, isn't it?" Only thing was, he saw the decay where I saw the possibility.

Still, though, it will be some time before I can go into any of those buildings without getting the creeps.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lupita and Linda Blair and the Mother of All Hairballs

I went to Santa Fe about five years ago and stayed in this great B&B called La Tienda Inn . Great place – comfy, great atmosphere and friendly innkeepers. If you go to Santa Fe, be sure to check it out. When I checked in, I noticed this big cat walking around, and the innkeeper told me she was Lupita, she owned the place and once she planted herself on your lap, you were stuck for as long as she wanted to be there, which could mean a long wait. Later on, as I sat in the lounge, I could see her living up to her reputation on another guest’s lap. The guest, who clearly wasn’t a cat person, was visibly terrified at the prospect of trying to move her.

The next day, I figured I was acclimated to the altitude (7500 feet) and went out to Bandelier National Monument to do some hiking. I think I got a little stoned on the lack of oxygen, because by the time I got back, I was downright goofy. Lupita was waiting at the door of the little cottage I was staying in, so when I opened the door, I let her come in. She made herself at home on the bed, and we hung out to watch some TV. After a few hours, I figured it was time for her to go – I was ready to sleep, the innkeeper would be getting worried, and most importantly, there was no litter box in the room. However, Lupita had made up her mind to spend the night in my room.

That is, until something scary started to occur. I’d made a really BIG mistake by going hiking before I’d actually acclimated to the altitude, and it suddenly became very clear to me that I was about to get very sick. Again, I tried to get the cat out of the room, but she wouldn’t budge – a decision she came to regret. I ended up running to the bathroom to do the Linda Blair thing into the first plumbing fixture I could get to. When that first bout ended, I looked down to see the cat bolting for the door, which, of course, was closed. When I went to let her out, she had such a look of fear in her eyes! I can only imagine that she thought I’d hacked up the mother of all hairballs. She avoided me for the rest of the time I was at the inn.

I learned two things from this experience: wait at least 48 hours before you do anything remotely athletic when you’re dealing with altitude, and if you need to get rid of an obstinate cat, projectile vomiting works very well.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ya gotta wonder what the guy is thinking...

...and what the world is thinking of the rest of us.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Rock bands, etc.

Coco mentioned that Smoking Caldera sounds like a punk band. Reminds me of a time when some sort of strange substance was found on the ground, having fallen like rain in a town not far from here. The newspaper headline read: Mysterious Goo Found in S. Plainfield.

"Mysterious Goo." You don't see that phrase often, especially in a newspaper. Made me think: it's a pretty cool rap artist name. 'Cept you'd have to spell it:

Ms. Teary S. Gu
And somewhere in between would have to be some sort of unpronounceable symbol. Thoughts?

Monday, July 17, 2006

No matter where you go...

somebody wants to sell you a souvenir (and a Coke).

After walking just about all the way up Mt. Vesuvius, you're greeted by a handwritten sign -- in four languages, no less -- announcing that you're almost to the top, to the smoking caldera.

Interestingly enough, the word "souvenir" needs no translation.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Don R.'s video

Monday, July 10, 2006

From the doghouse to the penthouse

This is my buddy Pete (the dude on the right). He spent over two years at the animal shelter where I used to volunteer. Great dog, very quirky. Some kind of mix of mastiff and bulldog and probably something else -- we couldn't figure it out.

Anyway, Pete and I got to be pals because I was one of the few people who could walk him without getting dragged. He'd see me coming with the leash, and he'd start jumping up and down like a Jack Russell terrier, except Pete is close to 100 pounds. It was amazing. Pete was partial to women, and after a while, he'd even sit in my lap gently, not putting his full weight on me.

Anyway, Pete finally got adopted by a nice couple. The man looked about the way Pete would look if he were human -- tall and beefy -- and the woman was petite and fussed over him, just as he likes. So after spending over two years living in a trailer next to the municipal dump and the police shooting range, Pete is living the life of luxury. He has a summer home on the Jersey Shore, and a boat, among other things. Most importantly, he has a dad who understands him and knows how to treat him when he steals someone's steak. Yup, Pete has the good life. He deserves it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sometimes I feel like a goat in a tree

How I got here, I don’t know.
Why I’m here, I don’t know.
But I’m here, so may as well enjoy the view.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Happy Independence Day

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

-Benjamin Franklin

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Nebraska Navy

Everybody knows about Kentucky colonels (Sanders aside) ... but did you know that there's an imposing naval force within the heartland of the United States?

It's called the Nebraska Navy.

Why would a landlocked state need a navy, you ask? Because you never know when there will be a surprise incursion from Kansas. Kansas, you ask? Oh, they seem really friendly in Kansas, and like the U.S. and Canada, Nebraska and Kansas have a broad, unprotected border and a history of friendly relations, but these days it never hurts to be prepared. I'm sure that the Cornhusker State got its fair share of Homeland Security dollars to bolster the navy's defenses.

Like any government entity, however, the Nebraska Navy apparently is not immune to political maneuvering and patronage. It has more admirals per sailor than any other naval fleet on the planet Earth. Reportedly, it has become a gubernatorial tradition to grant admiralship to any just about Nebraskan who asks.

By the way, the Nebraska Navy should not be confused with the Cornfield Cruiser, or the USS Rancocas, which protects the farmland of southern New Jersey. That's a totally different story.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Cat Man

I used to work in the headquarters of an electric company, and when I first started working there, a co-worker told me about an employee who dressed up like Rum-Tug-Tugger from "Cats" for every employee event. I thought she was pulling my leg... but then I saw the Cat. It was Christmas Eve, the day that employees traditionally bring their kids to the office and put work aside for some holiday cameraderie. There was Leon, in the lobby, resplendent in his threadbare tights and fur that had seen better days, welcoming employees' children to the building. More than one kid shrank behind his/her parent's back, and I'm sure a few had nightmares about the pot-bellied, six foot feline who meowed at them and pawed at the air.

I never actually saw Leon without his costume and makeup on, but I did have one unfortunate encounter with him at a company-sponsored event. He sidled up to me and asked if I had a cat. I said no, but I'd been thinking about it. Bad move -- he replied, "Well, put a saucer of milk out on your doorstep, and maybe I'll stop by."

A few years later, after I left the company, "Cats" closed on Broadway and I heard that they were having a charity sale of all of the costumes and props. Somehow I had suspicions, and when I read the New York Times the next day, I found a picture of Leon, in costume, shopping for new fur among the used cast materials. He was quoted, "Sometimes you're having a bad day, you put on your fur and whiskers, and things turn for the better."

When you think about it, it's a shame Leon worked in the headquarters of the electric company. With his feline skills, he'd probably serve the company better working in the field and climbing poles.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Mystery Door

I live in an old building. It was built in 1940, on an old estate, with a beautiful English garden courtyard. After a two year wait, I finally got to the top of a list for a garage. The building has about 40 individual garages, all located on the ground floor around the outer perimeter of the building.

When I first opened my garage, I found that there's a door on the wall opposite the garage door. It's an old metal door, with trim and one of those big keyholes you can squint through. Hoping it was extra storage, I tried the doorknob; it was locked. Mystery!

Of course, I couldn't just let it be. My first theory was that the door originally led to an interior basement hallway leading to the building, so that you wouldn't have to walk outside after parking in the garage. I figured that at some point, they'd locked all the doors and walled them off to create more storage areas for all of the residents. But when I looked at the building floor plans I got when I moved in, I couldn't find a hallway. Then again, the floor plans were copied and copied and copied until they were very faint when I got them.

The other day, when I came into the garage to get the car out for work, I noticed a glimmer of light coming through the keyhole. Hearing that spooky slasher movie music in my head, I approached the door and bent down to peer through the keyhole. All I could see was a well-lit, painted cinderblock wall about six feet away, with a bundle of cables running along it about three feet above the floor.

That light has been on for a couple of days now. Maybe there's someone back there, pushing a button every 108 minutes to keep the world from ending. On the other hand, maybe it's Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. Or there's someone (probably Dick Cheney) on the other side, waiting to jab a sharp stick in my eye if I get too close.

I am considering buying a skeleton key (do those things work?) to see if I can get the door open. Of course, I could always just ask building management, but that wouldn't be any fun, would it?

Any idea what's behind the door? I'm kind of afraid to find out, but I'm also dying of curiosity. I guess if I disappear, you'll know where to send the police.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The northern New Jersey town of Edgewater has an interesting distinction: one of its neighborhoods is inhabited by a flock of monk parrots.

The jury is out on how exactly they got there -- the popular story is that they escaped from an incoming cargo shipment at Newark Airport. However, there's a similar story about a flock in Queens and JFK Airport, so who knows.

Every once in a while, the Edgewater parrots get evicted from their homes. You see, they tend to build huge nests of branches and twigs on or next to power transformers; the pole-top equipment provides a warm place for them. They raise the danger of creating outages, so the local utility, with the assistance of NJ Fish and Wildlife, breaks down the nests and makes the transformers safe again.

Despite the fact that the entire neighborhood could lose power -- and the nests could go up in flames -- if this work wasn't done, the neighbors complain when the birds are evicted. On the other hand, one or two local people have exploited the situation by catching the birds and attempting to sell them to exotic bird dealers. Monk parrots are protected by law, so the poachers generally are arrested and fined. (The utility and Fish & Wildlife don't harm the birds.)

The monk parrots don't seem to mind the eviction, as much as they might squawk about it. Undeterred, they return to rebuild their nests as soon as the coast is clear.

A quick utility joke: Why do transformers hum? Because they don't know the words.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Here's the shell pile at Shellpile. Or at least one of them. Shellpile, New Jersey, is part of Commercial Township in Gloucester County, as are Port Norris and Bivalve. Yes, there is not only a Shellpile, there's a Bivalve, both named for the oyster harvesting and processing industry that brought the towns to life back in the 19th century.

Now, the shellpile isn't as big as it once was. These communities are virtual ghost towns, since the bivalve disease MSX decimated the oyster industry in the Delaware Bay back in the 50's and 60's. As you see, there are still bivalves to be had, but they are carted in from other places and just processed there. The oyster industry is also coming back as the Bay gets healthier and healthier, though I'm hearing now that DuPont wants to dump some sort of previously-noxious chemical several miles out in the bay. As we know, nothing is ever "previously noxious." If it were, the corporate decision makers wouldn't mind having it in their own back yards.