Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A man, a horse and a duck walk onto a bus...

Today's New York Times reports a veritable explosion in the species of service animals roaming the streets and public transportation. While dogs have long helped blind people navigate through their every day lives, therapy dogs and cats have become more prevalent in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. Certain breeds of monkey have also helped stroke patients with their daily tasks. Now, apparently, just about any animal on Noah's Ark is making a difference.

The Times story opens with a few paragraphs about a blind woman who is aided by a miniature horse. Apparently they're a great alternative to the average guide dog. They live about 30 years, a time span in which the person in need might expect to retire five or six service dogs. And yes, horses can be house trained. However, they're not quite as convenient for public transportation. Unlike a guide dog who can curl up at his/her person's feet, the guide miniature horse has to stand at the bulkhead -- or in first class.

Other people -- many with mental illnesses or severe emotional issues -- have found that a particular cat, bird or even ferret can provide therapeutic calming guidance.

Now, I'm a huge fan of animals and know first hand what a wonderful impact they can have on one's life. Nonetheless, the story got me thinking of that old joke, "a horse walks into a bar..." What if a horse, a cat and a parrot went into a bar with their people?

Punch line, anyone?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Separated at birth?


Disgraced (and disgraceful) Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.



Shameless (and shameful) burger pusher, Big Boy.

Maybe it's got something to do with that clearly uh, sculpted hair on the gov, but the comparison was almost instantaneous as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Asbury Park, December 27, 2008


From the boardwalk...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Missing what's not there

Several weeks ago I took a final trip to Shea Stadium to see a game before the ol' toilet is torn down and the Mets move to Citi Field. Shea, of course, is adjacent to Flushing Meadow Park, the site of two World's Fairs, first in 1939 and then in 1964-65.

Introduced to the world in “The Great Gatsby” as “the valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens…. ” the wastelands of Queens were transformed into a wonderland of the future.

The centerpiece of the park, of course, is the Unisphere, a massive stainless steel globe standing in a fountain pool. The iconic structure has been featured in everything from TV commercials to fashion ads to movies -- while you might not know where it is, you've surely seen it at some point in your life. For a while I'd considered getting out there to take some photos, and now I realized it might be a cool road trip: get a few shots of the globe, maybe get some snaps of Shea as they take it down, and check out the ruins of the World's Fair.

Perhaps due to my experience in at Man and His World in Montreal, I thought I'd find a bunch of abandoned or little-used buildings once I got out to the site in Queens. Stuff I found on the web supported the thought that the New York State pavilion observatory towers, at least, were still there, rotting in situ. At the very least, I wanted to find the giant road map of the state that had once welcomed visitors there.

When I got to the park I found it was huge -- not surprising -- and well-used on a beautiful fall day. It was Sunday and the soccer teams were out in force, the diversity of their ethnicities creating a veritable World Cup competition.

I parked next to the Queens Museum of Art, the former New York City building and ice rink, which once served as the first site of the United Nations assembly in New York. The structure looked suitably neglected on the outside but still functions as a museum, housing an accurate scale model of New York City.

That day, the Unisphere fountain was dry, serving as a rink for skateboarders. I later found out that the fountain now only operates during the US Open, held in September at the US Tennis Center nearby. All the better for my photo plans -- I was able to get a bunch of very arty shots, including a few from directly under Antarctica. Pretty cool.

While some other structures still stand, the vast majority were removed after the close of the Fair and are in use elsewhere. Standing in the park, looking at the mature trees lining broad walkways and fountain pools, it's hard to believe that a veritable city once stood there, with millions strolling the grounds and trams gliding above. There are bas relief murals showing scenes of both World's Fairs, but for the most part, the park doesn't show much of its previous use. Of all of the ruins I've visited, musing over what once was and isn't anymore, it's the most departed of all.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Friending: a verb

Last winter I finally took the plunge and joined Facebook, ostensibly for the professional networking opportunities, but also to see if I could link back up with friends and former acquaintances from the past.

It's been an interesting experience on several levels. First, I've come to realize how much I tend to categorize people into different segments of my life. I take the word 'friend' to heart and though it's a loose term taken lightly (and even as a verb) on Facebook, I've thought twice about some of the friend requests I've gotten, and even some that I've sent out. People I barely know -- some of whom I don't necessarily like -- have sent friend requests to me, and I've been hesitant to send out invitations to other people, thinking that I may be presuming too much of the acquaintanceship. After all, one's Facebook friends can see all of the activity you put on your page. If you tend to compartmentalize your life the way I do, it's a bit scary to open yourself up to that much observation.

Likewise, you're apt to find out some interesting things about people you don't know that well. I recently took an improv class in New York, and while I knew a lot of the people in the group were younger than I, I didn't find out just how young until we all started friending each other after our graduation show. The woman who'd basically labeled herself as the class Methuselah is more than 10 years younger than I am. And most of the other people were born sometime during my college years. I have no clue if they realized how old I am, but it made me wonder, and it freaked me out a little.

But yeah, it has made me realize how much I do hold back. There have been times in my life when I have been extraordinarily open with people, but then other times I've been told I'm hard to get to know, that I put up a wall. The internet can serve as a cathartic environment, kind of like talking to a stranger on an airplane or a bar, and the anonymity is a hugely freeing factor for me, personally. But the big question, really, is what is the risk? Yeah, from a professional standpoint, you don't want to be known for some freaky hobby or association, but what are the chances? And really, what's the harm in people knowing who you really are? Maybe I need to take this a little less seriously and enjoy it for what it is.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Penn Station, NY

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Campaign promise kept?

Last Tuesday night, in his first speech as president-elect, Barack Obama announced to his daughters that they'd earned the right to get the dog he and Michelle had promised them. As the grown-up child who'd never been allowed to have a pet other than fish, this vow really resonated with me. I mean, Obama was telling the world -- not just his kids -- that a puppy would be joining the family in the White House.

It's one thing to break a campaign promise, but one to your two little girls? And it's not like he can now take the dog away if they don't walk him or her as they promised they would. If he doesn't come through on this one, he's gonna look like a jerk.

This led me to think about other pronouncements Obama could make as his daughters get older. Imagine the turns the average press conference could take:
  • "US troops have started a staged withdrawl from Iraq, to end in 15 months, when Sasha will get a Barbie Dream House, but only if she cleans her room."
  • "We will achieve a balanced budget, at which point Malia will be allowed to wear makeup -- but just lip gloss, no red lipstick."
  • And if there's a second Obama term: "Following the enactment of the new healthcare initiative, Malia will be permitted to date, as long as we meet the boy first."
Of course, the Clintons probably tried that last promise with Chelsea -- and see where that got them.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The last, desperate throes ....

I'm not a big one for endorsing candidates, but given the passion of the season, I feel compelled to say a few words about the tenor of the presidential campaign.

There's clearly a sea change here -- a broad contrast between a hugely popular candidate who's more or less kept to a positive message, and his opponent, who seems to think that cultivating fear will punch his ticket to the White House, even if it means he goes against everything he used to say he stood for.

These days, it's impossible for any one person to effect change in government. Between Congress and the lobbyists and God knows who else, there are too many voices, too much money involved, for anything to change too quickly or too easily. Of course, a skilled manipulator can manufacture a crisis or enemy to color peoples' perspectives, but as we've discovered, that only works for so long. And the Founding Fathers intended that the balance of powers would prevent any one branch of government from having too much control. That's why I don't put too much stock in campaign promises -- they're too easily dashed.

I just look at character. Who's the candidate I feel I can trust to represent us well to the rest of the world? Does either candidate have another reason to want to be president -- like does he have daddy issues to resolve? Which one do I trust not to insult my intelligence?

I'm really looking forward to a change. I'm really tired of the rest of the world hating the US and thinking we're stupid for having elected our leadership. And I'm sick of politicians pissing in my face and telling me it's raining.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where in the U.S. can one get a decent Toasted Special?

One of the most wonderful -- and frustrating -- parts of travel is being turned on to local delicacies, things you can't find at home.

While in Southwestern Ireland several years ago, I acquired a taste for Toasted Specials, recommended by a Kerryman named Donal. We were in a small pub in a remote town, and he advised that they were very good. Somehow it seemed that even though he was a lineman for Irish Telecom, even he couldn't have visited that pub often enough to know their special was good. But at that point, I knew nothing about Toasted Specials, including that it's not the 'special of the day,' it's just the name of what might be considered the National Sandwich of Ireland. In other words, it's the same, no matter where you go. In effect, it's Ireland's version of a McDonald's hamburger, only better.

The Toasted Special is merely a toasted ham, cheese, tomato and onion sandwich. That's it. Pretty much any pub you go to will have the ingredients on hand and can toss one together for you. And yes, it tastes as good as it sounds, though I must admit that you could put melted cheese on a shoe and I'd eat it with gusto.

Now here's the odd thing: for as ubiquitous as the Toasted Special is in Ireland, it's virtually anonymous outside. Try looking for it on Wikipedia: not there. Try Googling it: barely there. In fact, I couldn't find a decent photo of one. Meanwhile, there are reams of tributes to Taylor Ham, which is a rare find outside New Jersey. Not that I'm complaining about Taylor Ham, but with all of the other Irish stuff that people obsess over, you'd think that a pub sandwich would get a little more airplay. And there are a lot of Irish people in the New York area.

So does anyone know where I can find a decent Toasted Special? Or do I have to go all the way back to Ireland to get one?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Shea goodbye... say hello again...



Last Thursday I took my second and final trip to Shea Stadium. And then I watched yesterday afternoon as they held closing ceremonies for the park... after the traditional collapse of the entire season.



It's funny, I haven't been following major league baseball for a long time, but going to the game brought back those really hopeless days of 1980. Those were the times when every game was broadcast on Channel 9, called by Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy and Steve Albert, and when we weren't in school, my sister and I watched every inning. Given that the team finished the season with a 67-95 record, we gained a lot of character that summer.



And I never imagined I'd cry at seeing Craig Swan and Doug Flynn.

Monday, September 22, 2008

American culture pervades yet again...

It's a practice as old as war: occupation forces tend to impress their cultures on the the 'host' community, either intentionally or inadvertently. Consider, for instance, the broad appeal of SPAM in certain sectors invaded during World War II, and the bizarre cargo cults that still expect Jon Frum to return with washing machines and Coca Cola.

Most recently, the ultimate kitch has arrived in the Persian Gulf, as I discovered while shopping online for lawn ornaments. As you'll see
here, pink flamingos have made it to Iraq.

Now, I have to admit that I have been the proud owner of a pair of pink flamingos since college, when a friend and I conspired to litter the university president's lawn with them. For years, they held a place of honor in my bathroom, but more recently they've been nesting in my garage. I never once thought they could migrate to the Middle East as a morale builder for the troops. They're not really desert birds, after all --they subsist on shrimp and shellfish.

I wonder: what must the Iraqis be thinking of this? Do they curse the pink plastic birds, or do they honor them? Do they secretly covet them? Will the troops take them home when the US packs up, or will some of the petroleum Phoenicopteridae remain as invasive species? And the scariest question of all: will more flamingos start appearing in front of Iraqi homes?

And then what's next? Garden gnomes?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

It doesn't pay to be crabby.


Incidentally, tomorrow, September 19, is Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Arrrrrrrrrr!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nobody ever died for dear old Rutgers

(Okay, a little corny, but it's actually a song from a Broadway musical!)

Walter Seward, Rutgers class of 1917, passed away earlier this week. Check out the story in the
Rutgers Daily Targum. More to come from me later this week. Bottom line, you've gotta love a guy who can sing all the old school songs.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tell us how you really feel.

One of the things I like about working a job with 'global' responsibilities is the figures of speech you learn along the way. For someone with an ear for language, it can be a real treat.

At the outset, you have to remind yourself to assume positive intent. Take, for example, the Irish, who, when you say something favorable, will respond with a hearty "brilliant!" Having lived in the highly sarcastic New York area my whole life, I was inclined to believe the person was making fun of me, because what I'd said wasn't especially creative,
ingenious or original. Then I realized that the same person would exclaim, "brilliant," if I said I'd call them back in five minutes. So I let it go.

The Australians, appealing as their culture is, have especially colorful expressions, many of which you can't reason out for yourself, between the accent and the mix of what must be some sort of aboriginal-based slang. But they're generally nice enough to explain. Obviously, you have to be really careful, and if you're a little confused, it never hurts to ask for a little clarity. Though I did learn that it is definitely not a good idea to tell a British person that someone is walking around with a puss on their face. No, not good.

I can't imagine how many people I've confused with my habit of spouting spontaneous analogies. Seems the more frustrated or wound up I get, the more I'm inclined to come up with colorful ways to describe it. A lot of times, it's one a lot of people know, say, "Don't piss in my face and tell me it's raining." Others are a little more unique:
  • "Like wearing a ballgown to a barn raising" -- putting way too much fuss into a task that requires little attention and will generate little return.
  • "Being given crayons to paint the Sistine Chapel" -- being woefully underequipped to complete a mammoth task successfully and creatively.

Wow, now I forget the others. Anyway, when you're on a roll, it's hard sometimes to stop and explain to people for whom English is a second language. One of my coworkers once got a call from another colleague who was on a conference call with the both of us and got the full treatment. "What is this barn raising," he asked her, "and am I expected to dress up?" Oh, boy.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hey Pacific Islanders....

Tell me where I should visit and what I should do if I do go to Micronesia in March!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Putting some distance between...

I've had an off-again, on-again desire to go to Micronesia for many years now, since I heard of the remote group of islands way, way west of Hawaii. I'd first learned about them when the PR firm I worked for started representing Continental Airlines, the operator of the only scheduled flight service to the region. Continental Micronesia does an island hop from its Guam hub to Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Yap and Palau a couple of times a week. It's not like I was getting any travel out of the job -- just that it got me thinking, and reading. Then I found out that Yap has stone money, and that just made it even more intriguing. I've made trips for more ridiculous reasons than that, though this would be the farthest, distance wise.

The region also has a huge World War II history and is a renowned diving destination, given the sheer volume of wrecked warships. On land, several of the islands still show signs of habitation by military during the conflict -- old buildings, transport equipment rotting in place and so forth. I've always been fascinated by the use of these islands as strategic hopping points during the war. Who doesn't remember the stories of the old Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles for years past the war, not knowing of the surrender? A couple of years ago, at the Millville Airport down Jersey, I came upon an old transport plane marked Kwajalein Atoll -- pictured here.

What's more, the culture, while influenced by the West, like everywhere else, is still going pretty strong, from what I understand. In any case, it's bound to be a lot different from New Jersey. And the wanderlust always seems to bring me back to who I really am, as opposed to who I find myself having to be far more often than I'd like. Gotta do something about that. Not that I have any illusions about going native, selling my wool coats, packing up the cats and heading to the Pacific. It's just getting away from the corporate thing. And being in an environment where random people are friendly, as a rule.

Being several hours (and the dateline) west of Hawaii, it's one of those places you'd better make the most of while you're there. Chances are you aren't going to go back anytime soon, at least from the mainland US. To get a sense of how air travel works in the region, take a look at this post from a fellow blogger who lives in the Marianas and chronicled an experience taking the Island Hopper.

Anyway, I finally decided that I want to take a couple of weeks off (at once!!!) in the spring and make a real trip someplace off the beaten track. This seems to do the trick, though I still have to seriously work out the timing of the travel and whether my aging body can manage the inevitable disorientation caused by a series of long flights and time zone leaps. After all, it would be a real bitch to get all the way there, end up with a weariness-induced migraine and nowhere to buy Motrin.

Hey, worst case scenario, I do ten days in Hawaii, and get to Molokai and Midway this time. If that's the consolation prize, I'm doing pretty well.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What's changed?

Over the past few days we've seen a lot of history: the nomination of the first African American presidential candidate by a major political party and the first time the Republicans have selected a woman to run for vice president.

The thing that has really struck me, though, is that it's the first time that people of my generation have taken the national stage at this level. Barack Obama's just a few years older than I, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin are my age. Somehow I find it amazing, given that I'm still grappling with the fact that I'm a grownup. It reminds me how little I've achieved, but that's another story.

Michelle Obama, especially, struck me. I first realized it a few months ago when there was all that tsimmis about the senior thesis she wrote at Princeton. She'd studied minority alumni of Ivy League schools and theorized that they tended to diverge from their ethnic communities following graduation. In reading about this, I found that when she was at Princeton, black students accounted for just about four percent of the population. There were 94 black students in her class. I was stunned: I was at Rutgers during those same years, and I saw that many black students on an average visit to the dining hall. What do you gain from being in an environment where everyone looks like you?

Even more shocking, her white roommate's mom had lobbied the deans to get her a new housing assignment. And what's disturbing now: the current Princeton student population is only about four percent black, though there is a higher percentage of students labelling themselves as 'other' on the question. So has anything really changed? You'd think that by now, an Ivy League school would be all about creating a learning environment that exposes students to different points of view and different backgrounds. You'd think.

I'm still trying to parse out my feelings on all of this, and I'm not especially eloquent on them. But I guess we're of a generation now where people don't care so much that a successful person is black. They might notice it, but it doesn't have the same impact it once did. And maybe to a point, it's gotten to where a successful black person isn't accused of playing white just because he or she has gotten somewhere in life. The old guard who, by necessity, had to fight harder because they were black, are now being succeeded by the people who were children then and are now benefitting from their elders' hard work.

We've seen the same thing with women; I get the feeling most of the time that the successful 20 and 30 somethings never even considered that they 'weren't supposed to' have what they have. Some would see that as ungrateful. I see it as progress. And to get elected, women don't have to wave the feminist flag and a liberal agenda. It's kind of cool to not vote for the woman because she's too conservative for your liking. That, my friends, is progress.

So getting back to the thesis here, it feels good that my age peers are making it to the top. Whether I agree with their politics is irrelevant. The fact that it's more about their stands than their gender or race is what makes me happy.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

In tatters ....

Spent some time at Fort Hancock / Sandy Hook today, noting the accelerating decay of the fort's buildings. Seems every time I stroll down Officer's Row, I see another sign of benign neglect. Allegedly there's a plan in place to restore many of the buildings and make them into offices, or hospitality centers, but whoever's doing it seems to be taking their own sweet time. Meanwhile, I grow more suspicious as I see broad swaths of tar paper on roofs where the shingles have blown off.

And wooden porches continue to deteriorate to the point where they give, dangerously, when you put weight into your step as you trod on them. Probably worst of all, I'm seeing more and more windows whose panes are missing, allowing who knows what to get inside. And the upper half of one double hung window has dropped, its counterweight probably having snapped in the frame.

Kinda makes you wonder if they'll let them rot to the point where more than half of them won't be salvageable. Then, oops, well they'll have to just tear them down. The development agency that redid New Brunswick took the same approach to a host of old buildings in what used to be the wharf area of the city. Dozens of buildings that had been there since Colonial days were just shut up and left to sit until they were too dangerous to enter. They got torn down, conveniently, in favor of new townhouses. Call me cynical, but...

Meanwhile, I continue to notice things I hadn't seen before, mostly window dressing. Who moved out and left the curtains behind? And 30 years later, they still hang, faded and filmy, but still intact. I've never felt them to be haunted, but as I walk between the houses to check them out, I think about some sort of spirit peering out from behind those curtains, watching me. Watching something.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Knocking a buzzard off the proverbial wagon...

Yesterday I made a huge mistake. It all started with this video, taken at the oyster (clam?) processing plant at the piers at Bivalve, gateway to Shellpile. Watch and listen...

Now, most of the people I mentioned in the video were either at the wholesale shellfish market, or taking their boats out to the Maurice River. And I realize now that the reason I hadn't seen anyone on previous trips was because it was the dead of winter. When, by the way, the smell wasn't quite as bad, but still present.

To reach the spot where I took this video, I drove down a road whose macadam pavement surrendered to finely crushed shell. I splashed through some watery potholes along the way. And thankfully, I never got out of the car.

From there, I drove back up to State Route 49, noticing as I went along, that the smell, though faint, seemed to permeate the area. Funny, but I hadn't noticed it on the way in. Gosh, I thought -- how awful must it be to live around there with that smell! Maybe one gets used to it over time...

Route 49 is about five miles from Shellpile, and I made my usual stop at the Wawa at the corner of the Mauricetown Bypass. Getting out of the car in the crowded parking lot, I observed the smell was still present. Oy. Don't these people notice it?

Taking back roads to the Parkway, it finally dawned on me: somehow I was bringing the smell of spoiled raw shellfish with me. A rogue oyster hitching on my catalytic converter? Hmm... And then it hit me: the potholes. I'd unwittingly splashed rancid bivalve leachate all over the undercarriage of the car. The stink followed me all the way home... made a temporary home in my garage... and finally departed at the car wash this afternoon.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Living the faith

Earlier today I happened on a story on CNN.com about missionaries who are refusing to leave a Chinese airport after being stopped for bringing Bibles into the country. It seems that while the Communists are okay with you bringing in scripture (Bible, Koran, Torah, what have you) for your personal use, they have a bit of a problem with you bringing in enough to share with 300 of your closest friends. The missionaries refuse to leave till their Bibles are returned to them.

In any case, this story reminded me of a conversation I had with an innkeeper when I stayed at a nice bed and breakfast called the White Egret, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It's a small place -- just three guest rooms -- and it was off-season when I was there, so I was the only guest. That can be a little uncomfortable, as you don't know whether the innkeeper understands the boundary between friendly morning chat and being a total pest. Fortunately, Joanne knew just how much conversation was enough in the mornings.

Interestingly, in just a couple of days and a few brief conversations, I learned that Joanne is a woman of deep faith who lives by her beliefs. Very matter of factly, she mentioned that she and her husband were going to Guatemala in a few weeks to help build schools, something they and their fellow church members did often. Being a wary skeptic, I waited for what I thought would be the questions about whether I'd accepted Christ as my personal savior ... you know, the typical Bible-thumping spiel. But it didn't come. She just mentioned her good works the way you or I might mention that we went down the shore on a summer weekend. In fact, I think it came up after she expressed some wonderment that I'd drive to North Carolina all by myself, a young woman on my own.

What really threw me, though, was when she mentioned that she'd done some missionary work in China when she was younger. I'd say she was in her mid-fifties, so this would have put it back in the 60's or so. She and a friend packed some Bibles in their suitcases and somehow found their way to China. They were detained by guards at the border.

As matter-of-factly as she talked about China, she mentioned that she and her friend were beaten by the guards for daring to bring religious materials into the country. I can't remember how they got out, but I do recall the pure equanimity she displayed in relating the story. She clearly wasn't telling me for shock value or sympathy, and if she harbors any resentment, she sure didn't show it. Nor did she express any of that hyperbolic, holier-than-thou "oh, I pray for their heathen souls" crap. It seemed she'd made peace with the situation, and that's all she needed to do. It was just something that happened in her life, while she was following her calling.

Again, here was another regular person who does extraordinary acts and had suffered for doing the right thing, but you'd never know it. In a world where so many people demand a parade when they give a dollar to charity, it's always remarkable to meet someone who's done so much and asked nothing in return. I guess that's what true faith and true humanity really is.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Avon calling.....


Friday, August 08, 2008

The new bennies

There's a group organized on the Jersey Shore called Benny Go Home, Benny being the derogatory term for partying summer rental people in shore communities. The line is that the name comes from the initial letters of the cities they come from: Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York -- but the term has been pinned more loosely on anyone who lives north of the Raritan River.

The Benny Go Home people eschew the geographic qualifications in favor of assessing potential Benny-tude by attitude. In other words, the real Bennies are those who disrespect the shore communities and their residents by treating the towns like their own personal playpen -- and shitting all over it.

Ken Pringle, the mayor of shore town Belmar, recently got into trouble for profiling the unfortunate Benny subspecies, the Staten Island Guido, in his Belmar Summer Rental News. During his long tenure, Mayor Pringle has moved to turn the town from a raucous 24 hour party to a more family-oriented destination, and a nice place for year-rounders to live. It's a worthy goal, but he should know better than to use his own press to malign the only place on the East Coast that's more misunderstood than New Jersey. His wife was PR flack for Jim McGreevey, so maybe that says something.

All that said, I've been noticing my own form of Benny -- those coming from Manhattan on the Sandy Hook ferry. For a while, they only came for the clothing optional Gunnison Beach, so I never ran into any of them unless that beach was overcrowded and they deigned to keep their pants on. But now that more people have heard about the beach and the nice boat ride, they seem to be all over. Unfortunately, my favorite beach in the park is the one closest to the ferry landing, so I get an earful. You can see the Brooklyn skyline and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, which I've heard referred to as Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge, respectively.

Now, I don't have anything against people coming from the city to ride their bikes or hang out on the beach (well, as long as they're not sitting too close to me). I do take issue with those who act as if the place didn't exist before they first heard of it. An apt analogue is the Ugly American who goes to another country and marvels when they find their hosts have running water, electricity and pizza.

Last week, I was treated to the prattling of two couples with kids, including an eight-year-old boy who was allowed to run around naked. They seemed surprised that there was a nice beach in New Jersey. I overheard one of the women telling the other adults, "Oh, there used to be medical waste washing onshore all the time. Then they cleaned it up and built all of this a few years ago, and started running the ferry from New York, and people started coming here." Typical hipster New York thinking -- everything was shit before you discovered it. The medical waste issue was for a few months something like 15 years ago. Gateway National Recreation Area was opened in 1974, thank you, and Sandy Hook was a state park before that.

Maybe I'm not being tolerant, but it seems to me that if you're at someone else's house, you treat it with respect and don't impose your ignorance and superiority on it. It led me to wonder if Pringle's Staten Island Bennies and the Manhattan Bennies were really all that different. Which, of course, would probably mortify the Manhattanites. Who don't realize there are some nice beaches in Staten Island, too, and the ferry to get there is free.

Hmm....

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Huzzah! Blog the Blogger!

Every once in a while I check Google Analytics for a sense of the traffic Shellpile gets. I think we've topped out at about five or six hits on a given day, only a few that stay for more than a few seconds. It's fun to see we've gotten repeat visits from as far away as South Korea. Needless to say, I'm not in it for the traffic, but it's great to get the occasional affirmation from a stranger who stumbles on the site.

So, I just checked and found that my July 4 post on the Morristown celebration had gotten a few hits over the past few weeks. That's great, but I wondered why -- I hadn't promoted it or linked to any other sites. Doing a little detective work through Analytics, I discovered that the Morristown Green section of NJ.com had quoted directly from that page! How cool is that?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Everybody's got a story ... but maybe not a home

Surely you've seen the 44 pound cat who made the news last week. Not only tragically obese but a victim of foreclosure, Powder the cat hit the media jackpot when he ended up in the animal shelter in Camden County, NJ. After CNN, NBC and a ton of other media outlets ran his story, hundreds of people contacted the shelter to adopt him. The shelter is now evaluating candidates and expects to have Powder in his new home in a week.

This is a common occurrence: a stray dog has an unusual experience, or a cat hoarder's home is raided, and people come out of the woodwork to adopt them. And, of course, the Katrina dogs and cats were a hot commodity for a while. The common theme is that it seems people are compelled to adopt that one dog or cat. Okay, maybe that's too cynical; perhaps they were truly moved by the circumstances and want to help that particular animal. In any case, you have to wonder if they'd be just as adamant about adopting one of the many anonymous cats and dogs who languish in our nation's shelters.

Each stray has his or her own story, their own little tragedy. The shelter where I volunteered was fortunate to have someone who wrote great profiles for each animal's Petfinder.com page. Nonetheless, I sometimes wondered if it might do the animals some good if we, well, elaborated on their circumstances just a tad.

What about that litter of kittens? Maybe they're all named after cities because they were born in a FedEx truck on the Turnpike.

Or how about that pit bull in the corner crate? He stopped a bank robbery!

If it finds them a good home, what's the harm? What, after five years is the dog going to fess up that the war stories are all BS? It's not like he's going to run for president. And even if he did, it wouldn't make a difference.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Will there be cookies?

I've had it with interminable, pointless business meetings. I'm not talking about the ones where there's an actual problem that needs to be solved. I'm talking about the ones where one person is so frightened of being held accountable for a decision he came to independently that he has to get a half dozen people involved. These are the meetings where the talk goes on and on and there's usually a need for a follow-up meeting -- at which no decision will be made.

If you've worked in corporate America, you know what I mean. They're the meetings where the "team" is supposed to come up with a recommendation, but it's useless because no-one in attendance has the power or budget to make any real decisions.

Sometimes you just have to suck it up and attend. Other times you can try to come up with a reason to skip it. It usually helps if you can invoke the name of someone important who conveniently needs your attention at just the time the meeting is being held. But sometimes when you get the invitation, you can't quite tell if the topic is legit or bogus.

I've decided that from now on, I'm using my own criteria to decide which meetings are truly necessary.

Will there be cookies?

This is an infinitely fantastic criterion. With corporate budgets being cut to the bone, the chance of there being refreshments is remote. If the person is desperate enough to have you there, he'll make the accommodation, at which point you can up the ante: Will there be Pepperidge Farm cookies? I really like those Milanos.

No? Oh, well, I'll have to catch up with you later.

It's a no-lose situation. Maybe people get you the Milanos, and they think you're crazy, but heck, you have good cookies to distract you during the meeting.

An aside: at my last job, there was one week in which I only had two meetings. I thought I'd gotten away with something until around 4 p.m. that Friday, when I got stuck in an elevator. For 15 minutes, I was stuck between the ninth and tenth floors, waiting for maintenance to open the doors for me. I came to realize: if you didn't have enough meetings in a given week, they'd force you to have one with yourself.

And no, there were no cookies.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Never fear...

The porkroll and cheese sandwich has returned to the Asbury Park boardwalk. I grabbed one at Mayfair this afternoon.











Just beware of the five dollar soda.



Tuesday, July 08, 2008

I hope I get it...

Another weekend jaunt had me on the train to New York with no set destination in mind. I let my gut draw me to the Theater District. I'd figure out what show to see when I got there.

It had been a while since I'd seen a Broadway show. I think the last time was in September 2001, when my friend Ingrid took me to see Chicago for my birthday. Just three weeks after the attacks, New York felt very fragile, and the usually mundane hop into Manhattan felt like an act of bravery.

Regardless of the circumstances, stepping into a Broadway theater always brings nostalgia and a sense of unrealized ambition to me. For a time in adolescence, I'd wanted to be a stage actress, and I can't help but identify a little with the actors, singers and dancers in the shows. How incredible must they feel, to have realized their dreams!

These days, there seems to be a wealth of good shows to choose from, and with the revival of A Chorus Line closing in five weeks, it seemed like the logical choice. Despite the legendary 15-year run of the original production and the supposed parallel to my own ambitions at the time, I hadn't seen it.

The opening minutes of the show's audition scenario brought me back to a forgotten episode of my life. My junior high school acting-fever days coincided with the first few years of the show's original run, and my friend Heather shared my desire to be on stage. She was an avid Backstage reader, especially the back pages where the open call notices were printed.

One night she called me to report that A Chorus Line was having an open call that weekend, Actors Equity card not necessary. Did I want to go with her? The New York bus stopped on her corner and went almost directly to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, just a few blocks from Times Square and the audition studio. It was that easy.

Every concern I brought up was answered: Uh, I can't dance. "That's okay, they show you the steps before the audition. You can follow everyone else." Don't you need a resume and a headshot? "You were in the Summer Music School production of Oklahoma! That counts for something! And you can bring your yearbook picture." Well, okay, let me see if I can go.

My mom blew a gasket when I asked. She'd denied many more reasonable requests; this one was the Triple Crown winner of the bad judgement derby.
  • Take the bus with your friend from school? (I don't know her mother -- she must be evil!)
  • To the Port Authority? (and this was before it was cleaned up)
  • Walk through Times Square? (This was Travis Bickle's Times Square, not Disney's)
Needless to say, I didn't go, even though Heather suggested ways we could get to the city and back without Mom knowing. After some initial pouting, I wasn't all that broken up about it. It just didn't make sense to me to audition for a singing/dancing role I didn't have the skills for. I knew what I was good at, and I knew my limitations.

My memory is a bit hazy, but I'm pretty sure that Heather went. Naturally she didn't get a part -- she was only 14 and didn't have the singing or the dancing -- but I give her credit for getting that far. Sometimes you do have to go for it.

Myself, I'd rather have the character shoes and the headshot first, thanks.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Visiting the Big House

Too much to do, too little time. Too much time, can't think of what to do.

Past several days, I've been off from work, doing one of those lovely "staycations" (a.k.a. 'holi-stays'). I could have swallowed hard and spent a ton of money on an airline ticket to elsewhere, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Instead, I decided to stick close to home and do some day trips, go down the shore, make a trip into the city.

Today I came up blank. The weather’s been changeable since Friday, so the beach was out. I considered a trip to Salem and maybe Shellpile, but I just wasn’t up for it. I needed to go somewhere, so I checked my file.

I keep two folders of places, things and stuff that looks interesting. One is a literal folder, for stuff I clip from the newspaper. The other is a virtual folder of bookmarks in Internet Explorer. Today the paper file didn’t cut it, so I checked online and found Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Eastern State is one of those great, scary places that's notorious among the cult of urban explorers. Built in the 1820s as a model penitentiary on the outskirts of Philadelphia, it stands fortress-like, with castle turrets and thick, thick walls. Eventually it became overcrowded and run down, even as the city grew outward to envelop it. More than 100 inmates escaped over the 150 years the prison was in operation, which, surely, was a major factor in the decision to shut it down. It was home, however briefly, to men and women, both obscure and famous, like Al Capone and Willie Sutton. (Capone's reconstructed, plushly-furnished cell is shown at the end of the video below.)



The initial concept was that each prisoner would have his or her own small cell and an adjoining outdoor 'exercise' area; they would see no-one, allowing time for significant contemplation of the wrongdoing that put them there. Cells were organized along cellblocks that intersected at a central point, like the legs of a spider. As the prison grew to accommodate a growing number of criminals, the individual exercise yards were eliminated in favor of new cells, and prisoners were doubled up.

Today, the prison is dungeonlike in atmosphere: a sea of peeling paint, falling-down plaster and dripping leachate from holes in the roof. During my visit, a sudden burst of rain reverberated through the cellblocks, making the already humid atmosphere even clammier. It's hard to believe that just 40 years ago, it was heated, wired for light and had running water... and that there was paint and plaster on the walls to make it habitable.

A few of the cellblocks are open for wandering, while others are closed, but you can poke your nose in from the central area or from the outside yard. Some of the cells are open to walk into. They're all pretty much the same and are all pretty creepy. One cellblock is specifically noted as being haunted. Grrrreaat.

There's also a sampling of art installed around the prison -- a Guantanamo cell set up in a cell, time lapse video of light entering and leaving a hallway, and 19 ghost cats. They're the specters of a colony of felines that took the place following its abandonment. And it's a game to find them around the grounds, adding a bit of whimsy to a scary place. The truly odd thing is that they all have contented little smiles on their faces. Never imagined that the Cheshire Cat would be staying at the Graybar Hotel.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Huzzah! Huzzah!

July 4 is one of my favorite holidays. No matter how screwed up government is these days, and no matter how frustrated I may be by current events, I'm a patriot, and I relish the chance to celebrate it. It's amazing to think about the chances our forebears took in rebelling against the great superpower of the 18th century. It's even more amazing to think that they prevailed.

Not far away from me is the Morristown National Historic Park, one of many "George Washington slept here" places in New Jersey. Valley Forge gets the press for misery, but Morristown was the site of two epic winter encampments of the Continental Army. Valley Forge had disease, but at least it was relatively warm. Morristown had disease plus persistent, sub-freezing weather and feet (yes - FEET) of snow, blowing through the flimsy soldier tents and hastily-constructed log huts. Washington and some aides stayed at the home of the sympathetic Jacob Ford, closer to the Morristown Green.

Every July 4, the Ford Mansion hosts a reading of the Declaration of Independence and a musket salute from the Jersey Blues - the third New Jersey Regiment. Far from a solemn event, the reading takes on a raucous tone, with the reenactors encouraging audience members to shout huzzahs and heckle King George during the airing of grievances. There's nothing quite like hearing the words of 1776 punctuated with a clearly 21st century "no he di-in't!" Everyone has a good time, and in the process, we all get a better view into an event and people we thought we'd already known so well.

What gets me every time is the accuracy of John Adams' vision of what the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing would be like. He told his wife Abigail that Independence Day "should be commemorated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forever more." It's a day for fun, for celebrating what it means not to be oppressed. The pursuit of freedom.

And he was sure it would happen -- that America wouldn't be a flash in the pan. The following years would be challenging for him and for the country, but it's the belief that got him through it. And even with all of the crap that happens here -- a lot of it self-perpetuated -- that confidence is at the core of what America is. And it's what has to give us the courage to continue to hold ourselves and each other accountable to the vision.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Didn't see it coming...


Every loyal Springsteen fan knows the line from Fourth of July Asbury Park (Sandy) -- 'The cops finally busted Madam Marie for telling fortunes better than they do..." Doubtless, a lot of the people who come from far and wide to make the Stone Pony pilgrimage and take some photos of her small Temple of Knowledge on the boardwalk. Hours were sporadic, but visitors were invited to call her; she was more than willing to come over and open up shop. I was tempted a few times, myself, but never did.

Marie Castello died Tuesday at the age of 93. According to an obituary published in the Asbury Park Press and distributed in an e-mail by the folks at Weird NJ, she hadn't been sick, just wasn't feeling well lately.

While she'd closed the Temple during the boardwalk's extreme low period in the '90s, she continued to predict good things for Asbury's comeback. After yet another set of would-be saviors went belly-up in '94, she told the Star-Ledger: "I most certainly knew the developers were going to come to a bad end, but I stayed here because this is the beautifullest boardwalk in the world. Sure I could have warned people in town, but who's gonna listen to me? But I'll tell you this: Asbury Park is gonna come back bigger, I mean much, much bigger than even before and it's gonna happen in the next three years. Trust me, I know these things."

Her timeline was more than a little off, but maybe she's right, and maybe the Castellos will be able to get their share. When I was down there last weekend, I noticed they'd hung a new red and white striped awning on her Temple of Knowledge. Apparently her great-granddaughter has taken up the family business. The joint venture partners who are renovating the boardwalk buildings lowered the Convention Hall flag to half staff, so you can be sure they won't be taking down her shack anytime soon.

Requiat in pace, Madam Marie.

Monday, June 30, 2008

I stand corrected

AllAsburyPark.com notes that the Mayfair will return to the Asbury Park boardwalk this summer. No word on Taylor ham and cheese sandwiches, though hope springs eternal.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dang.

Summer is here with a vengeance, with the classic New Jersey humidity. Since I didn't want to chance a sunburn with my physical scheduled for Tuesday, yesterday's jaunt wasn't to Sandy Hook, but to Asbury Park.

It's the weekend before July 4, and they're still working on the boardwalk concession buildings. Some shops have already opened, though you could barely tell from the boardwalk because the doors were closed and no shop signs are up yet. They do look nice, though, with stucco facings and energy-efficient tinted glass doors.

Not surprisingly, the building that's the nearest to complete is the one closest to Convention Hall. Formerly home to the last operating Howard
Johnson's restaurant in New Jersey, the flying-saucer-shaped restaurant building attached to the rest of the pavilion has been open the whole time. It appears that its upper floor, once HoJo's banquet room, is soon to reopen as a chichi supper club. Other storefronts in the building show 'opening soon' signs that seem to attest that their new occupants will appeal to a similar demographic.

Amid all of this, there's still a forlorn "Place orders here" sign on the outside wall of the next building over, a remnant of the Mayfair hot dog/hamburger/soft ice cream stand that once operated there. The joint always kinda skeeved me out -- and that's saying something, coming from me -- but it left me wondering. Once all of these shops are open, where on the boardwalk is a girl gonna be able to find a decent tube steak, a slice or a Taylor ham and cheese? Mesclun salads and fruit smoothies are nice, don't get me wrong, but to me, they don't quite jive with the Jersey shore.

In an effort to bring Asbury out of its doldrums, are they going too far in the other direction? I'm not advocating the cheap and tawdry honky-tonk atmosphere of Seaside Heights, but let's at least make it possible for a family who actually lives in AP (not in the condos) to go to the beach for the day without having to take out a bank loan. Granted, I'm talking here without a lot of information to go on, but it's not looking good.

Then again, we'll see what the market will bear. The downturn in the real estate market could put a dent in condo sales in the new buildings, and maybe the promised influx of the demographic will come a lot more slowly than originally hoped for.

Just before I drove out of town, I stopped by one of the new developments, with a thought of looking at one of the model properties. Once I walked in the lobby and assessed the decor, though, I turned to leave, walking past two men who sounded as if they were involved in the building's operations and maintenance. A classic Jersey guy, one of them called after me, "Arent'cha even gonna look?"

I was going to ignore him, knowing half the reason he asked was to flirt (those guys always do), but stopped to tell him, "Not my style. I'm a hot dog and fries kinda gal."

Smiling, he replied, "Now, that's what I like!" He and his companion laughed, and I was on my way.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

R & R

Now that it's summertime, thoughts turn to vacation, even if you know your work schedule in August is going to be so busy you won't be able to leave the office a few hours early on a Friday afternoon.

The other day I was thinking: when you're a little kid, the cool places to go are theme parks where you can pretend to be an important adult. Maybe it's Cinderella or Batman, or even an Amazon steamboat captain, but in any event, you're not a kid. You're a grownup with a really cool job.

Then, when you get older, you've probably blown your shot at a cool job, so you want nothing more than to be a kid with no job at all. People pay good money to go to Club Getaway, which is just a giant summer camp that doesn't force you to play dodgeball. And think about it: what more is a spa but a nursery for giant newborns? They massage you and coo over you and wrap you up in cozy towels. All that's missing is being burped.

I think we should take it a few steps farther. Forget about being a kid again. Consider all the stuff you weren't allowed to do as a child that you swore that you would do once you grew up. That's what my theme park for adults would be all about. Here are just a few of the attractions:
  • You'll Put Your Eye Out Land -- for fans of A Christmas Story and everyone who was disappointed when lawn darts were taken off the market.
  • Run Up the Down Escalator -- the line would be really long for this one, and it wouldn't move very quickly. Bonus ride: sliding down the railing from the top.
  • Throw Pennies from the Balcony -- maybe you'll hit someone, maybe you won't, but you won't get yelled at.
  • And, of course, don't miss lunch at the Five Second Rule Food Court, where everything on the menu is dropped on the floor just moments before it reaches your table. Extra points for ordering the spaghetti.
Jump on the beds! Play in traffic! Slurp up at the public drinking fountain with your lips directly on the spout! It doesn't matter!

Needless to say, I'll have to find a somewhat less litigious country to build this park in, or the last attraction will be Get eaten by sharks.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Getting rid of squirrels -- the Jersey way

For as long as I've known him, every summer my dad has planted enough salad vegetables to keep us and a few lucky neighbors in produce for much of the growing season. It's not unique to suburban New Jersey; in fact, many of us keep a small list of people we keep away from in August, just to avoid having to accept bushels of unwanted zucchini.

With gardens, of course, come pests. Dad has never been big on using chemicals or poisons in the garden, and over the years he's found his own ways of dealing with the random bugs, worms and small animals that come calling. One, though, is both persistent and perennial.

The organized crime syndicate of the suburban garden is the squirrel family. They hone their skills in the winter through attempts to steal from my mom's bird feeders. In the summer they escalate to eating the apples (only the ones on the trees, mind you, not the ones that have fallen to the ground). And of course, when they do get to their quarry, they take one bite of the fruit and move on to the next one. Needless to say, it's rather frustrating when you've been watching a particularly nice tomato grow to perfection, only to check the garden in the morning to find it's been sampled by a fluffy-tailed rodent.

Dad has tried many ways to address the problem. Chicken wire did nothing but make the garden look like some sort of detention camp. He set hav-a-heart traps and released the thief into the woods across the street, but it only returned (he swears it's the exact, same squirrel every time). He even went as far as to pull out his old slingshot, which the squirrel laughed at once he realized it would only knock him out for a bit. Dad's a really bright guy, totally sane, but the thought he put into some of the ideas left me wondering if there might be other projects that would benefit from his ingenuity more. Like solving the global warming problem, perhaps.

Then one day he told me he thought he had the solution to the one-squirrel crime wave. Yes, he was still using the trap, but he wasn't releasing the culprit across the street. He was bringing it to another, bigger county park about five miles away. That seemed like a sensible solution for a recidivist squirrel. But I started getting worried when he continued his account of the, uh, disposal.

"I put him and the trap into the trunk," Dad explained, sounding a little like Paulie Walnuts explaining how he and Chrissy got the Russian to the Pine Barrens. "Then I drove around for a bit before I headed to the park, so he'd get disoriented." Between that, the distance and the fact that the park is on the other side of a very busy highway, Dad was reasonably confident that the squirrel wouldn't come back. In fact, I think he even suggested that when the squirrel's family noticed he'd disappeared, they'd think twice about coming into the garden. Little would they know that the capo-di-capo of the Family was living in witness protection.

I guess I should have been relieved it only went that far. My parents do have 'connected' neighbors, and while they aren't the type to ask for favors, who knows what could have happened in exchange for some zucchini flowers and basil.

All I can say is, God forbid a deer gets in the yard.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

It's coming along ....

Another beautiful summery day, another trip to Asbury Park. I'd thought it would be a little too cool to hit the beach at Sandy Hook, so I figured I could head on down to the boardwalk if the Parkway traffic wasn't onerous.

I really should have packed for the beach. By the time I got down there, it was 80 degrees, beautiful sunshine, perfect for setting a towel on the sand and digging into a good book. There was lots of foot traffic on the boardwalk and a lot of cars parked nearby; I didn't realize it, but there was a big Gay Pride celebration going on a couple of blocks inland, so lots of people were coming in for that, too. On the boardwalk, one of the pavilions is nearly fully renovated, with signs saying the stores will open in a few weeks.

There's always a surprise for me when I head down there, and this time it was the Carousel Room of the Casino. Long boarded up, its intricate windows protected, it was always surrounded by a fence far enough away to allow me to get a decent photo. The photo to the left gives you an idea of the distance I had to contend with, even on my last visit just a few weeks ago. I could have gotten physically closer, but not by much, and my view would have been obstructed by chain link fencing.

This time, the temporary fencing was close enough to the building that I could walk right up. I've always liked the Medusa-like brass face medallions above the doorways, and now was my chance to get a closer look. The whole exterior is covered in intricate pressed metal designs -- seahorses, spiderwebs on the cornices.

As I walked around from the street-side toward a body of water on the other side, I noticed that the fencing stopped. I could walk right in if I wanted to.

For a moment, I hesitated, but then a cyclist zoomed past me and wheeled right in. Hey, I said, if he can do it, so can I. Nothing was stopping either of us -- no warning signs, no closed gates, no sawhorses, no alarms.

The cyclist told me that the room had been open like that since Friday, and that the plan was that there'd eventually be a food court of some type there. No carousel, I guess. That's a shame. Looking up at the vaulted circular ceiling, I could imagine old, Edison-style incandescent lightbulbs ringing the rafters, gaily illuminating the space, the song of a calliope livening up the room.

In any case, I was surprised to find that the creepy feeing I had had -- and sometimes still have -- when entering the Casino was entirely absent when I walked into the Carousel Room. Maybe it was the openness of light and air streaming in. Or maybe it was that so much of it was new -- the ceiling, the poured-concrete floor, a plaster wall not far away. In any case, it felt hopeful rather than eerie.

Later I found that there's to be an art show there next Saturday, as part of the monthly First Night downtown. It'll be the first real life there in a long time; the last use was as a flea market. I guess one can hope.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Insult to injury

In his most recent weekly radio address, President George Bush encouraged Americans to mark Memorial Day with a patriotic gesture, like placing a flag at a veteran's grave. When he says things like that, I suspect he envisions some sort of 1940's Hollywood scene of small boys in Cub Scout uniforms reverently walking from gravestone to gravestone, saluting each fallen warrior with tiny hands at brows.

"Honor a vet. Plant a flag."

I wonder how that makes our Iraq veterans feel. Due to advances in battlefield medical practices, troops hurt in the Gulf are coming home after suffering severe injuries that would have put them in caskets in a war even just a few years ago. Many suffer debilitating brain damage or loss of limbs. In many cases they come home to hospitals that would be deplorable even in a war zone. We've all heard the stories about conditions at Walter Reed, supposedly among the best of all military hospitals. And don't get me started about the lack of protective equipment that landed so many of these injured in the hospital to begin with. I suppose the part of Bush's radio address that exhorted people to hold bake sales for body armor was edited out when saner heads prevailed.

Seems to me that honoring veterans -- standing behind our troops -- starts with taking care of them. Show them the same degree of loyalty they show their country. You put them in harm's way, you protect them. If they get hurt, you do your damnedest to fix them. You live up to your end of the bargain.

I find it frankly insulting that when these men and women are basically asked to be targets, and when they're cycled in and out for multiple tours of duty, our president thinks that a flag or a pat on the back is thanks enough for their bravery. For putting their lives on hold and leaving their families. And for sustaining injures that change their lives forever.

Is Bush the only one who thinks it's enough? I'd like to hope so. Nonetheless, it's sad to think that the one person who does... is the one who's in charge.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day, Small Town America...

I live so close to New York City, and in such a densely-populated area, that I tend to forget that I live in a fairly small town -- less than 25,000 people total. It's been around since the Revolution in one form or another, and there's a great deal of pride in community.

Days like tomorrow, it really comes out. The township Memorial Day parade gives every community organization the chance to assemble and show its pride in our country and our town. My first year living here, I went in a show of patriotism, expecting to see the high school marching band, the scouts, a veteran as grand marshall, maybe a jeep or two, and I wasn't disappointed. However, I wasn't expecting to see many of the others that assembled and marched, like:
  • The Red Hat Society
  • Every type of township vehicle (DPW front-end loader, anyone?)
  • The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (who knew?)
  • The local Elks 'Hogs' motorcycle group, roaring through suburbia
  • Residents of the local seniors housing in their air conditioned minibus, waving from behind tinted windows

Everybody has their chance to march through the streets, albeit only briefly through downtown (still haven't figured that one out, either), and down tree-lined residential neighborhoods. And they all get the same enthusiastic greeting from the folks along the parade route.

I don't know if there's a conscious effort to be so inclusive. I can only hope that someone in the township recreation department has a private smile as he or she grants permission for some of these groups to march. I like to think that there's someone there who enjoys the slight, very slight degree of weirdness it lends the town.

And I'd like to hope it's not the same person who organizes the pumpkin drop after the annual Halloween parade. There's no better use of one's tax dollars than parking a fire department ladder truck in the middle of town to hurl a huge orange gourd from 30 feet to the pavement below. And for some odd reason, the kids love to run to grab the big pieces.

Gotta love living in a town that has stuff like that. And before I moved here, I never knew this kind of benign weirdness was lurking.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Baiting the hook

Back on the topic of random contemplation, I'm reminded of a CEO I once knew. As his communication support, I accompanied him to work locations for breakfasts with small groups of employees, usually blue collar workers and mostly men. My job was to listen quietly and record any questions or issues an employee might have that warranted some research, so we could get back to him.

An understated and shy man, the CEO didn't mix with others easily. Combined with the usual perception about executives being approachable, his reticence made the atmosphere a little uncomfortable at the start. Understanding that, he asked each of the participants to share a little information about himself -- job, length of service, hobbies.

Jim, the CEO, would get the ball rolling by talking about his career and sharing a little about his family and hobbies. He always got a favorable reaction when he mentioned his summer house in the Maine woods, where he'd do some woodworking and puttering around.

I got to know the stories very well after a while. My favorite was his fishing story, where he'd row out to the middle of Sebago Lake with rod and reel for a few hours. He'd been doing it for years without ever catching a fish, mostly because he never baited the hook. He used the time to think, bringing the fishing gear only so that the neighbors wouldn't wonder why he was on the lake, doing nothing. Mainers, it seems, are a practical lot and aren't big on meditation.

So, every time I'd accompany Jim to an employee breakfast, I'd hear the story, wait for the punch line and chuckle along with the rest of the folks. One day he stopped in mid-story, looked at me and said, "you know, you've heard me tell this story many times, and I always say I never catch anything. Last weekend I caught a fish!" Apparently that's what happens when you put a nightcrawler on the hook.

It's funny -- that story has been popping up in my mind a lot lately. How so many people put the line of intention out there but don't bait the hook with the energy it takes to get what they really want. Sometimes if you do the work to get what you're looking for, you still don't get it -- often a crushing blow. Maybe the act of not working for it is a weird way of guaranteeing you always have the hope of getting what you want. While you still don't get it, at least you don't have to address the disappointment.

Or maybe you just need to meditate on it ... is it what you really want? ... before you work to get it. You could spend your whole life paralyzed by that. That's probably even worse than trying and not getting it. I've spent a lot of time in that position lately, and I'm sensing that maybe I just need to get off my ass. Either make something happen, or resign myself to being vaguely dissatisfied (or just plain annoyed) for the rest of my life.

You have to admit: making a conscious choice is leagues better than just letting things transpire. And maybe for once I'll work to get something, rather than feeling I'm fated to get only whatever is handed to me.

I just have to figure out what it is I want.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Isabella Rossellini, when asked in the New York Times Magazine if she was married, said, "No. I have been married twice, I have two children and I am now single. I don't mind it. Some people say, 'You have to date. It's good for you.' But it's not good for me if I don't like the men."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Third Saturday in May

The first few really nice Saturdays of spring tend to bring out the best in people. Today I took a wander through lower Manhattan, taking the PATH to the World Trade Center and then going where the spirit took me. Just warm enough, and nicely sunny, it was a great day to take a walk, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of nice encounters I had.

Started by dropping into the shop of my new favorite costume jewelry designer, Michal Golan. Great vintagey-looking stuff, and hard to limit myself to just two pair of earrings.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after that, except find some interesting subjects for photography. I've studied maps of Manhattan many times and often wonder about those little streets on the East River side. Some of them have been there since the days of the Dutch ... others a little more recent, but not by much. A few, in fact, are called 'slips,' perhaps like a boat slip. Anyway, as I approached Old Slip, I found the New York City Police Museum, housed in the old Precinct One building.

The 1939 WPA Guide to New York City describes the First Precinct Police Station as "a grim, solid structure reminiscent of a fortified Florentine Renaissance palazzo." While relatively small, it's an impressive edifice, and as I stopped to admire it, a gentleman introduced himself and explained the history of the place. Unlike me, the unofficial Asbury Park history teacher, this man had a connection to the museum. He welcomed me in, gave me a quick review of the contents and sent me off to take a look. Interesting place to check out if you have an hour or so, especially if you've exhausted the supply of the usual New York tourist destinations.

Seemed that after that, I kept running into friendly people who chatted me up just for the sake of chatting. And while I ran into a lot of tourists, they weren't the friendly ones. The amity came from food delivery people, a woman walking her dog (and her child who wouldn't allow a leash), your standard passers by -- so many folks who had no reason to say word one to me.

Maybe it shouldn't seem so remarkable that people should take a few moments to be pleasant to each other rather than just walking on by, but it is. New York has the classic rap for being unfriendly and downright rude, which has never been entirely true. That said, I was struck by just how friendly it actually was today.

I don't know. Maybe it was the weather; maybe it was me. Maybe it was the karma I was putting out there. Maybe you find what you're looking to get. Whatever the answer, it was a nice experience.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ask her -- she looks like she knows.

Sometimes, purely by chance, you get a glimpse into what, maybe, you should be doing with your life.

I visited the Asbury Park boardwalk today to see how things are going on the renovation of the pavilions and, of course, the Casino. Though the day was overcast, temperatures were in the mid 60's and there were plenty of people walking around. I got some cool shots of the Casino entrance in a large puddle on the walkway floor ... thanks to a photographer who directed my eyes downward by focusing his camera to the ground as I was striding through.

Walking out and onto the boardwalk, I was stopped by an older couple and a young woman who asked me if I knew anything about the building. New Hampshire natives, their range of knowledge of the city was defined by Bruce Springsteen and the Stone Pony.

Oh, boy, did they stop the right person. I gave them the Readers Digest version of the past, present and future of the Casino and the rest of the boardwalk. Fortunately the architect's rendering was posted right behind us so I could show them the half of the building that had been torn down, beyond repair. On their asking, I gave them a few nuggets of information on Ocean Grove's Methodist camp meeting, too. I also mentioned the shops and restaurants on Cookman Avenue -- nice little plug for my friends over there. (And why didn't I point them to my photos??? Grrr... )

We chatted amiably for a few minutes and closed the conversation exchanging thanks. They appreciated the time I gave them, but in my mind, they'd given me the favor of sharing my arcane New Jersey knowledge. It's not often that I have such a receptive audience. I had a goofy smile on my face halfway to Convention Hall.

Now, one would ask, why don't I do this for a living? For a minute I mapped out some potential ways to promote my touring skills, but then I got distracted. The bigger reasons of why not are fodder for about six months of therapy that I haven't focused on. Better to be unhappy at leisure, than work to be content.

Nonetheless, this know-it-all stuff has to come in handy eventually.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Is she kidding? (Please tell me she's kidding.)

So, the latest New Jersey political circus is the three-ring divorce suit between former governor and self-proclaimed gay American Jim McGreevey and his estranged wife, Dina Matos.

For the record, I was shocked by his proclamation four years ago. I'd always thought he was Canadian. In all seriousness, anyone who'd had any view into the state's political community knew it all along. Nobody really cared, and certainly few thought it was reason to resign. We all knew that it was more about the shady political dealings of his friends, and that they were coming dangerously close to his doorstep. And we didn't like him because he had a sense of entitlement that led him to honestly believe that, for example, he was right for spending state money on personal things like having his parents accompany him on an official/sightseeing tour of Ireland.

Apparently Dina got the entitlement in the custody battle. She's suing him for upwards of $10,000 or more per month in alimony and child support, stating that she wanted to maintain the lifestyle of a first lady, which he'd taken away from her by resigning and maintaining a private life with a wealthy gentleman friend. They both claim to be broke, though both Jim and Dina wrote tell-all books and did high-profile promotional tours, visiting Oprah, Jon Stewart and Larry King, among others.

This whole thing smells weird. I understand she's angry, though I find it incredulous that she could have been the only person in New Jersey who didn't know he was gay. I understand why she wants to put the screws to him. But for five figures a month?

She justifies the sum by stating it cost her that much to maintain the first lady image when Jimbo was governor. Apparently she did so many public appearances that she'd have to change her outfit three times a day as not to be seen in the same clothes twice. As if there is so much media interest in New Jersey's first lady that anyone would notice. And as if there's so much interest in her as a private citizen that she has to uphold that image. Hey, lady -- Talbots makes good quality, classically-styled clothes. Keep wearing the ones you have.

Maybe she's suing the wrong party. I guess we should all be happy she's not looking to get a state salary as official clothes horse. Then again, maybe more of us should have gone out to buy those books, instead of surreptitiously reading them at Barnes & Noble and putting them back on the shelf. Perhpas if they'd made a little more money there, they wouldn't be bothering us with all this silliness.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Funny what you remember ...

When I was a little kid my family went to Montreal on summer vacation. My parents always seemed to find places that nobody in my school had gone to or heard of. Then again, if it wasn't Florida or the Jersey Shore, chances were that the place was unknown to my classmates.

When we went to Montreal, we went to Man and His World, and the amusement park next door, La Ronde. Both were leftovers from Expo 67, the 1967 World's Fair. Like virtually every other world's fair, this one had had exhibits and pavilions for various countries and industries: the United States building was a big Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. There was even a model Habitat 67, an experiment in economical apartment living. Several of the buildings stayed open after the fair closed, thus becoming part of Man and His World.

It was pretty cool for us as kids and as Americans. Given that this was during the Cold War, it was fascinating to go into the USSR pavilion and see actual Russian stuff without all of the anti-Communist propaganda. I can recall getting a couple of souvenir wooden toys there, including a carved bear on a platform that appeared to wash his hands when you swung the attached ball beneath the platform. It had Cyrillic lettering on the bottom, and I remember that my mom was concerned that we'd be stopped at the border and questioned about it. Needless to say, we didn't stop by the Cuba pavilion for cigars, either. There's a great site here with information and photos of most, if not all of the attractions.

As much as I remember the exhibits and the incredibly fun rides and playground, what still sticks in my mind is the deserted part of the park. While the operators had continued to run most of the place as a going concern after the fair closed, several of the buildings were shuttered, and a whole area of concessions, restaurants and so forth was closed up behind fences. For the most part, it wasn't visible at ground level, but you got an eyeful if you used the minirail or gondola ride to get from one end of the park to the other. I can remember fanciful buildings -- something very Seussian in nature, very futuristic.

I don't know if the rides went over the closed area during the day, but I can vividly remember gliding over it at night. The area was darkened but for a few safety lights, and even at the age of seven or eight, I was fascinated by the idea of this formerly vibrant and even festive-looking area being shut down. Even as that young child, I felt the sense of having missed something by not being there when it was open. What was it like? While we had fun, it must have been delirium when everything was operational.

Man and His World eventually closed in the mid '70s, and LaRonde is still open as a Six Flags amusement park. The islands on which the Expo took place are now a public park, and at least some of the buildings were removed to the countries they'd represented. The futuristic apartment complex is still open, and a much desired place to live in Montreal.

And as I did a little research to get information for this post, I was once again hit by how amazing the passage of time is. Thinking about that young child who imagined the world that had been there that she missed, I'm struck by the fact that that part of me hasn't changed much. Likewise, I know she would have found it so cool that more than 30 years later, she'd be able to summon up a bunch of stuff about it on a screen sitting in her living room, just by typing a few words into a box.

Sometimes when I remember places like Man and His World, I consider going back to see what's there now. Somehow I think it's better just to check it out on the web. Less chance for disappointment.

Monday, April 21, 2008

If cats get communion, what's the sacrament?

With the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to New York, we've been treated to a wealth of data about him and his pre-election life, including some of his hobbies, likes and dislikes.

As it turns out, the Pope is an animal lover with a specific fondness for cats. While in his previous Vatican job, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cared for the cats in his neighborhood, who often walked him to work in the morning. In fact, following his election to popehood, his housekeeper worried about who would take care of the kitties after he moved to the papal apartment.

Unfortunately, even if you take the travel and time-consuming nature of his job out of the equation, the Pope can't have cats now. Interestingly enough, he suffers the same restrictions of so many other apartment dwellers: no pets allowed. Forget about the strays in the courtyard; he couldn't bring his two indoor cats with him, either.

What's that all about? I mean, he's the Pope. Doesn't he have the right to change the rules? I sincerely doubt that God put a 'no cats' clause in the lease. And what happens if he breaks the rule? Does he get kicked out of papal housing? Does he get fired?

You have to wonder if maybe this whole pet restriction thing has played into papal elections in the past. There's been a great deal of conjecture over the secret discussions that take place, so the potential is there. Imagine it: the College of Cardinals takes the vote and informs the winner that he was selected by his peers to get the big job with the big hat. And the lucky cardinal turns it down when he finds out he can't take Fluffy and Purr Purr with him. Who knows? Maybe that's what it would take to get the rule changed.

I have to believe this rule is a fairly recent phenomenon. Turns out that Pope Paul VI was so crazy about his cat that he once dressed the feline in Cardinals' clothes. Perhaps Felix Cardinal Catus got defrocked after missing the litterbox once too often, or for breaking the rules of celibacy. One bad apple spoils it for the whole barrel.