Wednesday, April 29, 2015

You Want a What?

Flying home last night on a gorgeous, apparently brand new Airbus A321, I was reading a book by former Major League umpire Ken Kaiser. He grew up in Rochester, NY, the city I had left that morning. The city where my mom had lived most of her life, and where she had passed.

She was born in Philadelphia, and moved her family north when my father accepted a job at General Dynamics Electronics. She needed a map - Rochester isn't an especially intuitive city. She'd never learned to drive, so a new friend took her to Pittsford Department Store. My mom asked for a map.

The clerk brought her a mop.

Rochester's accent is much more like Chicago's than NYC's. The Great Lakes accent, it is called. Some translation was necessary.

"Not a mahp" her friend said. "A may-ip."

Ken Kaiser was explaining something Rochester-esque. "We went to Wagmans, the grocery giant of Upstate New York."

Wagmans?! I knew instantly what had happened. Ken Kaiser had spoken into a tape recorder and his "as told to" collated the recollections into an entirely entertaining book. But, to the untrained ear Wegmans, spoken in Rochester-ese, sounded like Wagmans and the editor hadn't caught it.

Wegmans, where my mom and I had spent a lot of foodie hours. She loved spring green salad with blueberries and strawberries. I knew right where to go for the ingredients, especially in the Pittsford store. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

So I did both.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Annie B

“I know a girl made of memories and phrases, lives her whole life in chapters and phases...” Jimmy Buffett

Faced with a blank screen and a broken heart, I asked another writer for advice. How does one go about summarizing a life that spanned eight-eight years?

"Pick the things you want people to know most about Grandma. When your chest hurts from stifling tears, that's when I knew I was onto something."

My mom was shy. Around her friends she was witty, engaged. The women-only card games played in our living room often turned raucous ("What's the name of the game?" someone would bellow and they'd all laugh). But, put her in a room full of people.... A neighbor hired me to tend bar at his house party. My mom knew many of the people there, but not all. She spent almost the entire night talking to me.

 She was a football fan. Although her sons all played hockey (and she'd spent the better part of her adult life standing at cold rinks) she was much more comfortable rooting on her Bills. Even late in her life - like, last fall late - she stayed close to the TV on Sundays hoping that this year's crop would somehow find the end zone. It was her stubborn side showing that she never climbed onto someone else's bandwagon.

She was a foodie. That seems obvious, in that she and my dad belonged to a gourmet group. The planning and prep that went into the dishes was impressive. But that wasn't it. One of her signature creations was a delicious chicken casserole that seemed easy enough to replicate. Basic ingredients, simple directions. Uh huh. I could never get it to taste the same way, and I've taken cooking classes. When asked - "Oh, I add a few things" she replied. "You added a few things?" I married an intuitive cook. Maybe this is one reason why.

Her profession? Lunch lady. Many a Pittsford kid who grew up in Park Road School remembers the nice lady who would sneak them extra food. She would sneak me cookie dough, bringing home bits of it for me while I was in high school. And college. And law school.

"Step" was not in her vocabulary when it came to her grand kids or great grand kids. There was no difference, in her mind or in her heart. She was always ready to spoil them whether they entered the family as newborns, or as teens.

My wife describes her "old world manners." Mom had beautiful handwriting, which appeared in all of the cards she sent. Easter, Halloween.... Like clock work. She sent cash in them, I suspect on the theory that she knew the look on a ten year old grandkiddo's face taking a crisp bill out of the card. Only in her last year did she fail to send cards. It was a sign.

She loved opera, especially Pavarotti.She'd learned to play piano, and enjoyed the several years ours was in her living room. I never got to hear her play, though. That was too much to expect. But at a recital in Colorado she got to hear me play. That was enough.

She was never really comfortable with a son, or grandson, working as cops. She deluded herself into thinking we were not really street cops, that we had other, unrelated jobs. I tried to gently correct her. It never worked.

My father dreamed of owning a boat. Not one to shop the market, he'd decided to build one in their back yard. Restrictive zoning probably would have put the brakes on that, but it didn't constrain his dreams. The plans changed over the years, but the name of the boat remained the same. Annie B.

She loved to read. She was happy her oldest had written a published novel, but was aghast at the sex scenes. Later years and eye issues robbed her of its pleasures, until she discovered (with a little help) large print. She'd begun reading again when the final, cruel malady struck.

 My last real sight of her was after she'd walked us to the front door of her care center. She'd begun the long, slow good bye that had taken my dad, and so she could not leave without an escort. She smiled - shy, content - and waved good bye. She cried, because she always hated good byes. I cried, because I always hated to leave her.

She is gone, but not really. I look in the mirror, at my children, at my grandchildren and I see her. I look into my heart and I feel her. I look back on everything she was and I love her.

I cry, because I hate good byes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Counting Heartbeats

"Rage against the dying of the light." Dylan Thomas.

Tomorrow I will rush to my mother's bedside. I pray that she has enough heartbeats left in a long, beautiful life for me to share at least one more with her.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Leaving With An Appetite

"Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really." ~Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

We said good bye today to our little Papillon Radar. His twenty years - fourteen with us - can best be characterized as eventful. Few of our animals have given so much when we really needed it.

We were between dogs, in the sense that a traumatic week of losing two grown animals in five days had set us a bit on our heels. We took a break, tending to our cats and discussing breeds.

Radar was a cast off from a divorce situation. One of the splitting couple was a puppy fancier, who purchased a new one when the present pooch had become, well, a dog. The adult fended for itself, often unloved and neglected. When Pat went to visit, to see if this would be our next pup she made the only decision possible. He was matted, smelly, with crazy teeth. She growled "There is no way I'm leaving that poor thing with them."

He came to us at no charge... Sort of. He had the unimaginative name of "Bobo." Okay, if you also have named a pet Bobo, I apologize. But... A Papillon?! That is French for butterfly. Who names a butterfly dog Bobo? "C'est monsieur Bobo, n'est-ce pas?" So the name had to go.

And the teeth. Three hundred dollars later his choppers were back in some kind of order. We were in our MASH animal-naming phase, so the flappy ears made Radar all too easy. He would still answer to Bobo for a while, but soon gave a puzzled look as if to say "Haven't we moved past that?"

He was never very disciplined, in the trained dog sense. Classes didn't take, treats were wasted efforts. Recall? Ha! His favorite game was to run out the front door while members of the household ran after him. Common practice suggests that chasing dogs only encourages them to run faster. With Radar, everything encouraged him to run faster.

In 2004 we were between houses, living in a hotel in Glendale. Radar was the perfect dog - well-behaved when we were gone, respectful of the carpet when we were home. He enjoyed the six weeks as an only pet (the cats were in long term kennel care), prancing on his walks as though he'd been liberated from those other, snootie animals once and for all. He was not amused when the move into the new house reunited them.

He was my companion on our back deck through three novels. He enjoyed sleeping in the sun while I hammered away. He asked for only one thing - a soft pillow to rest his head.

He was less than amused when we added first one, then another Portie. They were large, noisy, obnoxious animals as far as he was concerned. He stood up for himself, always getting the short end of the fight. There would be blood and yelping, the cone of shame and a big vet bill. Only late in life did he learn that "It's not the size of the dog in the fight" was made up by a huge frickin' mutt.

His twilight years robbed him of his wayward personality. Deaf and blind, he could neither hear nor see anything worth barking at. Much to Pat's chagrin I named him "Pinball Wizard." He played a mean pinball, finding his way by instinct, smell and a gentle bump along the walls. As doggie dementia took over the bumps became bangs, and he lost track of who, and where, and why.

He never lost track of us. He had the maddening - and charming - habit of getting underfoot. He never wanted to be too far away from his humans, for fear that... 

This week everything about him had shut down except his appetite. Over the past month Pat tried a number of different foods (none of which appealed to him), finally settling on spaghetti-ohs, canned ravioli and baked beans. He would virtually (and sometimes literally) climb into his bowl to attack them. Even last night, his last hours at hand, he tried to lick the stainless off the steel.

We wish him well. In the years we really needed his energy, his devotion and his big heart he gave it unconditionally. He was exactly the right dog, at exactly the right time. He went quietly, calmly. Dreaming, no doubt, about spaghetti-ohs.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Meanwhile, On The Mound

"Hasty generalization is an informal fallacy of faulty generalization by reaching an inductive generalization based on insufficient evidence—essentially making a hasty conclusion without considering all of the variables. In statistics, it may involve basing broad conclusions regarding the statistics of a survey from a small sample group that fails to sufficiently represent an entire population.[1] Its opposite fallacy is called slothful induction, or denying a reasonable conclusion of an inductive argument (e.g. "it was just a coincidence")." Wiki, April 2015.

Pavlov's dog, and opinion journalists, salivate whenever a bell rings.

Over generalization, or concrete truth? The recent shooting death of an individual by a police officer in South Carolina rings a bell for certain journalists. They are quick to high dudgeon, suggesting that law enforcement is replete with "bad apples" who operate outside any legal framework holding them accountable. We are "them, we're they, above the law." In fact, say the ink-stained wise, it is in the nature of governmental authority to corrupt everyone it ensnares, creating thieves and thugs among officers making $300,000 per year. The accusers offer as proof a dozen examples of misconduct drawn from half a billion contacts per year by nearly a million officers nationwide.


Opening Day, Coors Field, Denver. Officer John Adsit and his son take the mound to deliver the ceremonial first pitch. Officer Adsit's son delivers a perfect strike, doing the honor because Dad is still recovering. He received his injuries on bike patrol, helping safeguard students protesting police practices. The sellout crowd gives the Adsits a standing ovation.

Opening Day, Frontier Stadium, Rochester, NY. The widow of Rochester Police Officer Daryl Pierson walks with an honor guard of officers, her 10 month old in her arms, and watches her eight year old son throw the first pitch. Officer Daryl Pierson died in September 2015 while apprehending a dangerous wanted criminal. The crowd, braving Upstate New York "spring" weather (37 degrees at game time) stood cheering.

The pundits did not mention either crowd, or either officer's sacrifice. A pity. While it would have diluted their point, it would have made another. That for all of our faults, all of the times we fall short, for the few (too many) in our midst who lie, cheat and steal, law enforcement is a noble calling that attracts many of the best America has to offer. But don't take my word for it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Lunatic Fringe

Ben Franklin: "The perfute of happineff?"
Thomas Jefferson" That's pursuit of happiness."
Franklin: "All of your S's look like F's, here."
Jefferson: "It's stylish. It's in."
 Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years (1961)

Noting the passing of Stanley Friberg, known professionally as Stan Freberg - ad man and satirist.

Mr. Freberg's career transcends description. His Wiki entry styles him as "an American author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director, whose career began in 1944. He remained active in the industry into his late 80s, more than 70 years after entering it."

In the run up to America's Bicentennial in 1976 everything flowed red, white and blue. Yet a skit, written and recorded in 1961, surfaced as one of the most genuine bits of satire extant. Our founders were fallible, misguided and consumed of the pomposity necessary to forge a nation. Christopher Columbus's affair with Queen Isabella results in her bankrolling his daft voyage. The national bird - the Eagle - was a mistake of Charlie the Cook, who thought that the turkey looked more appealing as a main dish. Ben Franklin is a cranky eccentric more interested in the sale of his magazine than signing a paper likely to have him "hauled before a committee." Washington's victory at Yorktown was a function of a canvas painted by "The Rockwell boy - skinny kid with the pipe."

America is a strong, brave land made and remade over two and a half centuries by the best - and the most  challenged - humankind has to offer. Freberg's approach to our often inflated self-image was to point out that, in spite of it all, we were born of and continued to boast some of the world's most fallible creatures. Our strength is in the reality that Americans are also a generous people who understand we have blundered our way along, holding on to a simple principle.

We are all created equal.

Lucky us.

A Hard Pill

"The truth can be hard to swallow, but it's always best to embrace it."

A North Charleston (SC) police officer was arrested after video surfaced that suggests he shot 50 year old Walter Scott as Scott tried to flee from a confrontation that began with a simple traffic stop. It seems ironic, and obvious, that the most horrific episodes in law enforcement often begin with the most mundane encounters.

"The investigation continues" as the saying goes. The department has fired him and he sits in jail, his pregnant wife at home. Scott left four children, a fiance and family members who have suggested calm as a way to honor him.

 Mistake? Intentional act of malice?

Police officers train to respond properly to that moment when anger, fear and adrenal outrage coalesce into the decision to act. Repetition, consideration and an understanding of the awesome responsibility vested by their communities leads to an avalanche of wise decisions, sacrifice and the bitter taste of the consequences of even proper uses of deadly force. We are, a stunning majority of the time, up to the task.

Human beings are fallible. One of the horrible truths of law enforcement, a college professor opined, is that we must select officers from among a group prone to error, to shortcoming. When the stakes are high, there must be a discernible margin between what is right, and what is not..

My prayers are with Mr. Scott and his family.

My thoughts are with those who wear the badge and enter the fray prepared to sacrifice everything for our communities. We always begin our day in quiet contemplation that we will not falter in the hour we are tested.

Because we are human.