A Tale of Two Cities

June 30, 2008

If Charles Dickens were alive today, I think he might agree with my assessment of modern day London. The capitol city of the United Kingdom is, without question, two cities in one. The past and the present coexist in this bustling metropolis and one doesn’t need a great imagination to recognize it.

Perhaps the most obvious example is found in the crossbreed government. On the one hand, there is the British Parliament where the members – representatives of the people – meet in business attire to enact legislation. The Prime Minister is often seen being chauffeured to various meetings in a Rolls-Royce. In the meantime, the Royal Family, and appointed officials such as the Lord Mayor of London, are commonly seen in their royal trappings while riding in magnificently ornate horse drawn carriages.

A bit less obvious is the English cuisine. After more than a month in London, I have found only one restaurant that specializes in English food. If I included the pubs, that number would be much higher. Italian, French, Indian, and Chinese restaurants are everywhere. There is even a sampling of Australian and Mexican restaurants. America is well represented by T.G.I. Fridays, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Japanese and Thai restaurants can also be easily found. You name it… London’s got it. That is, except for English food. Porter’s Restaurant is the only place I’ve found. And it’s a shame. English food isn’t bad.

Porter’s menu offers many traditional dishes such as Steak and Kidney Pudding, Bubble and Squeak, Yorkshire Pudding, Spotted Dick pudding, and a wide assortment of meat pies. Naturally, I’ve tried them all. If anything, I’d say the Brits go a bit light on the spices. Other than that, the food is hearty and flavorful. Some of it, especially the puddings, is also loaded with fat and cholesterol.

The cafeteria at the office where I’ve been working has also given me an opportunity to try various English delicacies. For instance, I’ve had Shepherd’s pie, Bangers and Mash, Onion Bargies, and Pork Pie. I have yet to find Toad in a Hole, but am bound and determined to do so before I leave. I have also been told I should be able to find an excellent Steak and kidney PIE near the city of Leeds which is about 100 miles north of London. I’m this close; I have to go see if that is where my family originated.

Which reminds me, while I’m here I’ve decided to go to Kent and reclaim the Leeds Castle. Of course, the biggest problem will be getting it back to Georgia.

Getting back to the two cities… in talking to the English people, I’ve discovered that many of them still eat the traditional foods in their own homes. Thus, the old and the new coexist in the everyday diet.

Above all, the most obvious sign of the coexistence of the old and the new London is in the architecture and streets. The Olde Curiosity Shop sits on a narrow winding alley just as it did when Charles Dickens wrote about it. Only a few blocks away, glass enclosed skyscrapers house busy offices. One end of London resembles any modern American city, while most of the rest of the city appears unchanged – the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Any damage done to the buildings during World War II has been repaired and the ornate facades have been restored to their original luster. If I ignore the new cars, buses, and taxis, it is easy to imagine myself in London more than a hundred years ago.

The countless narrow lanes crisscrossing throughout the city are also a reminder of the London of Charles Dickens. I often find myself wondering which little shop was occupied by Scrooge and which small flat was the home of the Cratchet’s.

As Christmas approaches, more and more stores are hanging their decorations. I find myself wondering if the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present aren’t looking down on the city trying to spot the next Scrooge who needs to be straightened out. As far as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is concerned, I’m praying that he or she will see to it that I’m safely home in Georgia to celebrate it with my friends and loved ones.

(This article was written in 1997 while I was working in London.)

Experimental Contest

June 30, 2008

Forgive me for not having a set of radio buttons so you can tell me what word or phrase brought you to my blog. Please click on the comments button below and fill me in. Because you may have come based on almost anything I’ve written, radio buttons might not be enough. So, please feel free to comment away! Thanks.

This post was made around 6:30 AM EDT. Based on the low number of visits, I’d say my experiment has failed. This comment was added around 3:15 PM. I guess there is still time for flocks of surfers to appear, but that doesn’t seem likely.

A Great Experiment

June 30, 2008

Being new to this blogging business, I’m learning all sorts of things. Perhaps the most significant lesson I’ve learned thus far is that Google includes a function that alerts Internet users any time an article dealing with their specific interests is placed on the web.

Imagine that! There are millions of new things added to the web each day and Google has a program that not only looks at the title of the submission, but reads every word. Then it creates some sort of master index to make it easier for people to find each article. I find that utterly amazing.

To cite an example, someone found my blog by searching on Paula Charron. I was dumbfounded. I had to review everything I’d posted and finally found that I had mentioned a woman by that name in an article about Paris. I don’t know if the person searching was after the same Paula, but Paula’s name was buried deep in that article… and yet Google found her!

I spent most of my working career with IBM and mid-range computers. When I started in 1968, I worked with electromagnetic accounting machines like the 402, 403, 407, and 602 calculators. When they moved me into computers, I spent a little bit of time with the 360 model 20 and the 1130. From there it was the System/3, System/32, System/34, System/38, and the AS/400. In the beginning I worked as a systems engineer. After seven years I was moved into customer education. When I left IBM in 1992, I was still working in education.

As an IBM employee, I never got deeply involved with personal computers or the Internet; so much of what I’m dealing with now is new to me. But one trait that has been with me all my life is my curiosity.

Shortly after I left IBM I went to work for the National Data Corporation as a contractor. My sixty day contract called for me to help develop training materials for a new internal program to keep track of the telephone traffic in their call center. Like many software projects, it was behind schedule and I was soon being utilized by the Quality Assurance department. I was one of the few people who, while learning how to use the software, could break it. But, because of my many years with IBM, I could replicate the bug and help them determine the source of the problem.

The introduction of this article is longer than I’d planned. I’m trying to explain why I’m writing this article. It’s an experiment to satisfy my curiosity. I’m going to include various words and phrases that I think Google will use to alert people. I want to see how much the number of visits to my blog increases based on an article full of unconnected words and phrases such as men’s Dockers, Doris Day, and zucchini recipes.

For that reason, you may want to quit reading this article and move on to something else I’ve written. Although I’ll try to include a little humor here and there to maintain your (and my) interest.

I’ve just discovered something else! I should have guessed, but never gave it a thought that the other search engines have similar functions. I went to the Internet and discovered that Yahoo assigns a buzz score to search topics. I will now see if I can put the top ten subjects into one complete sentence. Michaela McManus, Jennifer Garner, Lara Logan, and Tim McGraw submitted the proper documents to the IRS after visiting a WWE event with their Hi-5 RuneScape, and then went to the UEFA Euro 2008 where they finished off their bottle of Tila Tequila.

There are at least two things I don’t want to do with this article. First, I don’t want to anger people who are looking for something else. I’m hoping they’ll realize I’m simply trying to learn something. I also hope they’ll take the time to look over my articles and decide to add my blog to their list of favorites and stop back from time to time to see what I’ve added.

Second, I don’t want to break any rules (written or unwritten) dealing with the proper etiquette of the Internet. If I have, feel free to chastise me.

As for the things I want to do… first and foremost I want to learn how to put a multiple choice poll on my blog. Then I could ask people to tell me which word of phrase caused them to investigate my site.

I’m also trying to learn how to put photos on my site. Many of my stories would be much more interested if I could include the photos I took at the time.

So that’s it. This part of the experiment is compete. I will add a “contest” and encourage readers to make a comment. Let me know what word or phrase brought you here. Also, please tell me you’ll come back! It’s so lonely in cyberspace.

Go Ahead, Make Somebody’s Day

June 29, 2008

It’s interesting how certain lines from movies stay with us. I’m sure many readers will quickly recognize the following pieces of dialogue. They may or may not be able to name the actors who spoke the words, but they’ll easily name the movies in which the words were spoken. And they’ll do it without batting an eye.

“Follow the yellow brick road.” “We ain’t got to show you no stinking badges.” “Show me the money.” “Go ahead, make somebody’s day.”

Wait! That last one wasn’t quite right. Any fan of Clint Eastwood would quickly recognize that I took poetic license with one of his most famous lines. Hopefully he’ll forgive me. In fact, if he reads this article, I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

Have you ever made somebody’s day? Have you ever told someone how nice she looked in a new outfit? Have you ever told someone how much you loved him? Have you ever told your wife or mother how delicious her fried chicken was? Have you ever told your husband or father how much you appreciate the little things he does around the house. I’d wager that even the most grouchy and nasty of us has said something nice to someone – even if it was done by mistake.

When was the last time someone said something nice to you? How did it make you feel? Sometimes a small compliment will stay with us for hours, if not weeks and months. It always feels good to have someone say something nice to us, or about us.

The trouble is, people don’t do it often enough. And they seldom do it to people they don’t know.

Let me share a secret with you. You don’t have to pay someone a compliment to make him or her feel better. Compliments are nice – especially if they are sincere – but not necessary to make somebody’s day. All you have to do is say or do something unexpected. (Make sure you have a smile on your face so they know you’re trying to be nice. Otherwise, they might think you’re just a little bit insane.)

For example, a while back I walked into a hair salon. I typically prefer a good old-fashioned men’s barbershop, but the guy who usually cut my hair was on vacation. So I decided to find out how they did things at a unisex establishment. They’re the ones that call themselves salons rather than shops. They’re also the ones that charge a bit more, but give you a shampoo whether you need it or not.

First off, they asked for my name. Obviously they had problems with the honor system employed in most good old-fashioned men’s barbershops. “Next” is a good enough signal for most men to decide whose turn it is.

As I began to respond, I realized that the young lady keeping track of things looked like she was having a bad day. Her hair looked okay to me, so it wasn’t a bad-hair day. Something else was troubling her.

Instead of simply giving her my name, I asked, “Do you sell haircuts here?”

This took her by surprise. She gave me the “Is this guy for real?” look and said, “Yes. Of course we do.”

I then said, “Good. I’d like one to go, please.”

That broke the ice. She forgot her problems for a while and gave me a warm smile. I then gave her my name. I could be wrong, but I believe she pushed me ahead of a couple people already on the list. That’s a strong possibility in a unisex establishment.

In a salon, women waiting to be served have a tendency to chat with one another and sometimes lose track of who came in when. In a good old-fashioned men’s barbershop, those waiting to hear “Next” silently read last year’s issues of Sports Illustrated while casually keeping an eye on who is coming and going.

The point of this illustration is that by allowing myself to be a bit silly, I was able to brighten the day of a young lady who otherwise would have continued to wallow in the dumps.

Another time I was checking out at a grocery store. My only purchase was a 12-pack of beer. At the time, cashiers under the age of 21 were not allowed to ring up alcohol sales. Whenever a customer came through a youngster’s line with beer or wine, the youngster would pick up the phone and announce a “Code 27” or some such words to signal for an adult to come to the register to complete the sale.

As the woman behind the counter began to ring up my 12-pack I asked, “Isn’t that a code 27?”

She responded with a wide grin and an, “Oh, Bless your heart!” She then told me that it was her 50th birthday and I had just made it very special for her.

In truth, her reaction made my day very special. I had no idea that my little attempt at humor would have such a profound effect.

To put all of this in perspective, think about your own typical day. Unless you’re retired and living a life of leisure, you get up every morning with the chickens. If you have young children, you spend the next hour getting them up and dressed, fed, and pushed out the door to catch the school bus. Or, perhaps you’re one of the people who don’t trust school bus drivers and insist on driving your precious bundles to school yourself – adding to the congestion and traffic that comes with the normal rush hour. In that case, you must also get yourself dressed – at least enough to look presentable to the other parents tying up traffic.

If you have a job, you must then join the rest of the masses oozing their way down GA 400. By the time you get to work you’re already longing for that next vacation. You no sooner get to your workstation when the phone starts to ring, or an impatient customer is complaining because you weren’t at the cash register when he or she thought you should have been there.

That reminds me. Just the other day a customer walked into a shop and told the person behind the counter that he had cost the customer $23.00 by not opening up 30 minutes sooner. The customer explained that he had to kill some time in another store.

Can you imagine such a thing? Oh, yes. The “angry” customer was none other than the author of this article.

The smile on my face told the merchant that I was teasing. His response was, “Well, I hope you saved enough money to spend some in here.” We both had a laugh and his day started a bit brighter. Mine would have started in a similar fashion, but I spent another $15.00 in his store and he simply took my money. One would think he would’ve given me a big discount for starting his day on a cheerful note. Maybe next time he will.

Anyone who works in retail will tell you it is often extremely difficult to keep smiling and being nice to customers. Face it; some of us can get downright nasty when we think the world should kiss our feet because we have money to spend.

And the nastiness doesn’t stop with retail workers. A wholesaler who is having trouble making a delivery can get an equal amount of grief from a retailer. And a waitress who has to serve lunch to people who have dealt with grumpy people all morning often feels the same wrath. Leave a pittance of a tip and you’ll quickly learn that anger and grumpiness can be highly contagious.

The moral of the story is that we have to deal with a variety of people every day. If we’re grumpy, the grumpiness will be passed on and eventually come back to haunt us – making us even more grumpy. However, if we all try to be nice to people – even when they are less than nice with us – we may discover that people are suddenly being very nice back. Just as the grumpiness grows as it is passed from person to person, niceness has the same result. You really ought to try it.

Go ahead. Make somebody’s day.

Fee, Fie, Fo Fum, I Have the Blood of an Englishman

June 29, 2008

I’m sitting at my computer listening to Phil Coulter sing “Take Me Home” and I’m getting homesick. I’m also wondering why I’m getting homesick.

Phil Coulter is an Irishman. His songs are probably better known than he. Elvis fans might recognize a song called “My Boy.” It made it to number 3 in 1974. Other songs written by Mr. Coulter include “Steal Away” and “Gold and Silver Days.” Most of his music is about Ireland. I’m originally from Pittsburgh. So why do I get homesick listening to songs about Ireland.

I could say it all began when my bride and I visited Ireland (for the first time) a few years ago. But I think it goes back much farther than that. I think it goes back to the late 1940’s in Pittsburgh.

Old timers might remember that Pittsburgh was once known as the “Smokey City.” Old Smokey got its name from the heavy industry that covered Western Pennsylvania like a blanket of soot. The three rivers were lined with steel mills. The surrounding area was covered with coke furnaces, coal mines, and other factories related to the steel industry.

A modern shopping center now sits on a piece of land once used by the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation to dump slag – a worthless by-product of the steel making process. Families would spend an evening parked on state route 51 watching the slag dumped from giant rail cars. It was like watching a lava flow. To us children, it was an extra Fourth of July.

Prior to 1950, our home, and most other homes, schools, offices, and factories in the area, were kept warm in the winter by coal burning furnaces. In addition to the heavy smoke in the air of Pittsburgh, there was a very distinctive odor. And that brings us to the initial Irish connection.

As soon as we walked out of the airport in Shannon, Ireland, I was transported back to my childhood. The Irish, you see, still use coal extensively to heat their homes. They also use compressed peat, which produces a similar odor. Surprisingly few homes rely exclusively on central heating. Most of their sitting rooms include a small fireplace. Unlike the United States, instead of burning wood, they burn coal and compressed peat.

My bride and I had a marvelous time in Ireland. The people were extremely friendly and the countryside was beautiful. I could say similar things about many of the places I’ve visited, but Ireland was unique because of the pervasive odor. I think that was the one attribute that made me feel so at home.

The connection doesn’t stop there. Hang on to your hats while I explain a theory of mine and give you more reasons why I might be homesick for a place where I’ve never lived for any extended period of time.

I have a theory to explain reincarnation. We’ve all heard about people like Shirley MacLaine who, through hypnosis or other methods, discovered, and believe that they walked this earth many years, or centuries, ago. In prior lives they might have been a different sex and attained a higher or lower social position, but they firmly believe they’ve been here before.

Some religions consider reincarnation a fact of life. The scared cows of India are animals that cannot be slaughtered and eaten because they may be relatives who have returned to earth in a different form.

In 1967 I was working at a mental institution near Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Some of you might recognize that Canonsburg was the birthplace of Perry Como. Bobby Vinton also grew up in that area. Neither spent any time in the place where I worked… that I’m aware of. Years before it had been a reform school for boys. One never knows!

One day a medical scientist came and gave a lecture on his research. The main thrust of his report was how he could control the behavior of laboratory rats by sending electrical impulses to different areas of the rats’ brains. While that was rather interesting, a side note is what really caught my attention.

The scientist explained how they trained rats to negotiate a maze by rewarding them with food. Once a rat learned the maze and could zip through it repeatedly, they killed the rat, chopped up its brain, and fed the brain to other rats. The rats that ate the chopped up brain learned the maze much more quickly than the rats that were not fed the chopped up brain.

I’m not sure what the scientist’s point was in this research. I don’t think he wanted us to chop up the brain of Albert Einstein and feed it to our children. I really don’t know what his purpose was.

I do know that it got me to thinking. The result of that experiment indicates to me that memories are stored in parts of the body other than the brain. By ingesting the brain cells of a rat that had learned the maze, the other rats were able to use the memories of the slain rat.

So what would stop us from gaining the memories of others by being created from their cells? Each of us was created by the combination of our parents’ cells. We know that our DNA is a direct result of that combination.

Perhaps we got more than our eye and hair color, facial features, general size, and intelligence from mom and dad. Perhaps we also picked up some of their more significant memories. And, since they inherited similar memories from their parents, we also acquired the memories of many generations.

It’s all in our cells someplace. We simply need the correct stimulus to bring it out. Be it hypnosis, a concussion, or some other type of shock, we’re all capable of recognizing something we’ve never seen before. Have you ever heard of Déjà Vu?

That’s my theory. Every one of us is a combination of all our ancestors. Would anyone like to guess where my ancestors came from? If you’re thinking somewhere in the British Isles, you’re absolutely right.

On my father’s side, we have traced the family tree back to 1620. That’s the year that Thomas Leeds was born in Kent, England. In 1676, he and his three sons left religious persecution and came to America. They settled in New Jersey. Twelve generations have passed and most of the Leeds men (in my line) have married woman of similar backgrounds. There is a liberal sprinkling of Scotch, Irish, and Welsh along with the English.

My mother’s maiden name was O’Hare. We haven’t been able to trace her ancestry as far back as my father’s, but we do know that most of her ancestors came from somewhere in the British Isles.

So there’s a second reason for me being homesick listening to an Irish song. Before I go any father, let me share the words of the song with you.

I sit here drinking while the sun is sinking low o’er the mountain and the dry dusty ground.

As the night is fallin’, I start recallin’ the nights in my own home town.

I see their faces in familiar places, I hear the music that we played back then:

My heart rejoices as I hear their voices calling me home again.

Home, oh! Take me home, home to the people I left behind.

Home to the love I know I’ll find: oh! Take me home.

As the sky is burning, my mind is turning to the cold winter evenings by my own fireside.

So far away now, but any day now, I’ll sail on the morning tide.

Home, oh! Take me home, home to the people I left behind.

Home to the love I know I’ll find: oh! Take me home.

Perhaps those words make you homesick for your own hometown. But they don’t make me homesick for Pittsburgh. They make me want to pack up and go to England, Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. As I mentioned, my bride and I were in Ireland several years ago.

Over the years my job took me to London four times. The first three were only for a day or so. The last trip lasted three months. I know I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere of the pubs; most visitors do. But I also loved the food. Steak and Kidney pie or pudding, fish and chips, bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, shepherd’s pie, and many other dishes made me feel right at home.

Maybe what I really miss is the British food and ale. I’ll have to cook myself a steak and kidney pie, get a six-pack of Bass Ale, and see if that cures me. For some reason, I think any effects will be temporary. Maybe I should stop listening to Phil Coulter.

Don’t Judge the Book by Its Cover

June 28, 2008

A number of years ago my youngest son was dominating our dinner table discussion by complaining about the stupid janitors at his school. He ranted and raved about how dumb they were; he couldn’t understand why anyone would want such a demeaning job.

When he stopped talking long enough to take a bite of food, I asked, “Did I ever tell you what your grandfather did for a living?”

He sheepishly looked at me and said, “Let me guess. He was a janitor.”

My father died in 1974, at the age of eighty-three. Matt was less than a year old at the time and never had a chance to really get to know his grandfather. I gave him a brief overview of my father and encouraged him not to be so judgmental of people he barely knew.

I realize now that I should have told my children much more about both of my parents. While my older sons have some memories of my father, none of my children ever knew my mother who died in 1966. In truth, my children might still find such stories boring. That’s a major problem with genealogy; most of us get interested only after many of our sources of information have passed on.

So, I’ll put what I know in writing. Some day, one of my children or grandchildren might get curious.

My father, William Henry Seward Leeds, was born in Philadelphia in 1891. He was the youngest of the three children who survived childhood – there were seven children in total. The custom back then was to name the first-born son after the paternal grandfather and the youngest son after the father. Evidently, my grandparents had their own thoughts on the matter; their second son was given his grandfather’s name, and their next-to-last born was given his father’s name. Dad’s younger brother, Warren, died when he was thirteen months old.

In 1895, a few days shy of his thirty-third birthday, my grandfather died of consumption, which is known as tuberculosis today. Although my grandfather came from an upper middle class family, there was no insurance or hefty inheritance. Grandma was forced to take her three children and find new living arrangements. She moved to Northfield, a small town in South Jersey situated just north of Linwood, New Jersey. I mention Linwood because the town’s name was once Leedsville. Grandma was obviously moving to an area close to her deceased husband’s kinfolk.

Grandma took a job as a housekeeper and nanny for her cousin who was a widowed sea captain. Mr. Kears spent long months at sea and needed someone to look after his children.

Barely able to make ends meet, Grandma had to rely on her two sons to help out financially. Dad completed the seventh grade, and then dropped out of school and went to work. Seward, as he was known to his family, worked many different jobs while he was growing up. The one that I recall most was as someone who helped cut ice from the mill pond. Prior to refrigeration, ice was harvested each winter and kept under sawdust in heavily insulated buildings.

When dad was seventeen, he decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Captain Kears. He signed on as a deck hand of an oil tanker bound from New Jersey to Louisiana. He spent most of his maiden voyage hanging over the side of the ship. When they reached port in New Orleans, dad took his pay and bought a train ticket to return home.

In 1910, Dad and his brother, Lewis Benjamin Leeds, rode a motorcycle to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. South Jersey – mostly a summer resort area – simply didn’t offer the employment opportunities found in Pittsburgh. Not only did the two brothers find employment, they also found their brides.

Dad married Cathryn Mary O’Hare in July of 1922. At the time of their marriage, Dad was thirty and mom was twenty-two. While mom never worked outside of the home, she was kept plenty busy raising me and my siblings. They had seven children. One son, Richard, died at birth. The other six, Wilda, Gertrude, Seward, Jr., Somers, Lewis, and I all lived well into adulthood.

Over the years, dad did whatever he could to earn a living. He worked as a clerk for the May Drug company until it went out of business, and held several other blue collar jobs. When the depression came, dad managed to stay employed and even raised chickens under their back porch to keep his family well fed. I understand he worked at Duquesne Light Company for a while, but the only job I remember was his last. I was born in 1944, so much of what dad did prior to that time is a blur of old stories to me.

In 1960, dad retired from the Oswald and Hess Meat Packing Company, He was sixty-nine years of age and almost had all his children out on their own. My brother, Lewis graduated from high school that year and immediately joined the Army. I completed high school in 1962 and went off to college.

To be honest, I always felt a bit ashamed at my father’s lack of education, but that all changed when I returned home after my first semester in college. He asked me what I’d learned. As I began reciting the many interesting facts, he took over the conversation and expanded on what I had told him.

I was reminded of a quote from Mark Twain that went something like this. “When I was seventeen I was embarrassed by my father’s ignorance. When I was twenty-one, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in four short years.”

It was then I made the connection. I can never remember seeing my father without a book nearby. He was always reading something. When his eyesight deteriorated to a point that reading was almost impossible, he started getting recordings from the library. He was truly a self-education man who never stopped learning.

I can recall mom and dad pouring through real estate catalogs. Their dream was to retire to a chicken farm – after all, dad had experience raising farm fowl. Unfortunately, mom died in 1966, while I was completing my senior year in college, and their dream died with her.

Dad lived another eight years and up until the last six months of his life, continued to walk three or four miles a day. He remained physically strong and mentally alert until the end.

I’m sure my older siblings can add to this story about my dad, and hopefully they will. Our parents should be more than names and dates to our descendants who get hooked on genealogy a few hundred years from now.

Dust is a Noun

June 28, 2008

Note: This article was written in 1997.

As I sit at this keyboard and reflect on the piles of junk I had to move to find it, I realize I must make some changes to my lifestyle. I can no longer shrug my shoulders and blame it on being a bachelor. This is the second time I’ve held that title but, for the first time, I’m living alone. While there are many positives about my current status, there is one glaring negative – there’s no one but me to blame for the mess.

I’ve thought about going to a hypnotist and submitting to past life regression. It might pinpoint the cause of my disorderly nature. If nothing else, I might discover some traumatic experience from my childhood to explain my sloppiness. In any case, finding something besides me to blame would be far easier than cleaning up.

From time to time I’ve tried to clean up my place, but my efforts always fell short of expectations. Once, I even tried a trick my ex-wife used occasionally – I invited my best friend over for dinner. The theory behind this is simple. I’m supposed to be embarrassed by the thought of an outsider seeing my mess and that fear of embarrassment is supposed to get my adrenaline flowing enough to tackle the household chores. The logic is the same as when a mother tries to get her son to change his underwear by telling him he might have an accident. In other words, the logic isn’t convincing. But I gave it a try anyway.

My best friend is a lady who is brutally honest, yet able to tactfully share her thoughts. Thinking I’d done a respectable job of making my place look decent, I asked her how it looked. She answered with a question of her own. “Don’t you ever dust?”

I couldn’t answer her. I still can’t. To me, dust is a noun. Dusting would be the same as desking or dooring. It’s impossible for me to turn such a noun into a verb.

I told her I change the furnace filter on a regular basis and gather quite a bit of dust that way. She felt I should do more. Perhaps I should, but the dust really doesn’t bother me. In fact, it comes in handy when I need to write something down and can’t find paper and pencil. The only difficulty is in finding a flat surface that hasn’t been buried under junk mail.

I don’t want to give the impression I’m a total slob. My home is not a pig sty… yet. I am truly making an effort to control the situation; I’m just losing the battle to the increasing clutter.

The geometric growth of clutter is a phenomenon that only pack rats can understand. One piece of junk mail left on the kitchen table can totally bury that table within a week. It’s more mysterious than anything ever seen on the X-Files.

Junk mail is poison to someone like me. I know it isn’t worth the effort to open it… so I don’t. At the same time, I imagine I could be the winner of the ten million dollar sweepstakes… so I don’t throw it away either. Each envelop sits there waiting for another so it can mate and reproduce. A piece of junk mail is no less a victim of genetics than I am.

Unfortunately, junk mail is only the tip of my iceberg. My greater problem concerns newspapers, aluminum, glass, plastic, and cardboard. They’re all recyclable and I’ve been brainwashed into believing it’s my duty to save the land fills. I also believe it’s my duty to save the whales, so I don’t eat blubber. I don’t save it either. But I do save all the aforementioned items.

For me, recyclable materials pose a problem of logic compounded by logistics. To take the items I’ve rescued from the garbage to a recycling center, I must make a twenty mile round trip. That equates to a gallon of gas which, I’m told, is a non-renewable fossil fuel that shouldn’t be wasted. Therefore, I wait until my piles of recyclable stuff are large enough to justify the use of the fuel. Since I don’t take daily inventory of the stuff, I don’t think about it until I can no longer find a place to put it. By then, it’s too late. I have too much to fit in my truck. At that point, I must justify the use of two gallons of fossil fuel.

The last time I faced this dilemma, I put a bunch of stuff in plastic garbage bags and moved it outside. When I learned plastic garbage bags are indeed biodegradable – several months of weathering is all it took — I finally made the four trips to the recycling center and disposed of it all… including the shredded garbage bags.

History repeats itself and I’m now approaching the same situation. In the near future, I’ll again grapple with the value of burning four gallons of gas for the sake of the county land fill.

Another problem I’ve had to confront is dirty dishes. Living alone means dining alone but, unlike many bachelors, I prefer to cook my meals from scratch. Occasionally I’ll fix a frozen dinner and simply discard the “plate” when I’ve finished. (Please don’t tell me the “plates” are recyclable; I don’t want to know.) Mostly, I cook real food because it’s cheaper and tastier.

I rely heavily on Hamburger Helper and other one-dish meals to reduce the clean-up. My frying pan has spent a good bit of time in the sink or on the counter waiting to be washed, but I always get to it before preparing my next batch of Potato Stroganoff.

When I bake my food, I use aluminum foil to line the pan. The reason is simple: it means I don’t have to scrub the pan. While being a labor saving technique, the tactic does present another recycling dilemma; do I save the used foil for the sake of the land fill (which means washing it – wasting valuable water and releasing soap chemicals into the environment) or just throw it away (which means discarding another non-renewable resource.)

I usually base my decision on the amount of grease. I try to avoid putting grease into my septic system. (I already have several containers of it in my refrigerator.) Since I’ve never heard any negatives about grease in land fills, I guess it’s all right to dump it there. It’s much easier to simply throw the foil and grease in the garbage can.

An equally persuasive consideration is the amount of gunk baked onto the foil. The bigger the mess, the more soap and water (and labor) I’d have to expend. This rational often makes the decision obvious.

Over time, I’d estimate that at least fifty percent of my foil gets buried. The guilt I feel over the foil ending up in the land fill isn’t as bad as some ecological radicals might demand. I’m able to rationalize by taking into account the volume of raw material I provide the foil makers in the form of empty beer cans.

The dishes I use in lieu of frozen dinner “plates” embody a similar problem. At most, I use one dinner plate, one cereal bowl, one cup, one knife, one fork, and one spoon per day. I can’t justify using a sink full of soapy water to wash so few items. Thus, I save dirty dishes just as I save recyclables. They pile up in the sink until I have no where to put any more. Then, I wash them.

I resolved the worst part of that dilemma several months ago; I bought a portable dish washer. Now, I simply store the dirty dishes in the machine. When it’s full, I wash them. The only remaining problem is having to dig through the junk mail on top of the machine in order to find the hose and electrical cord. Since I only wash dishes every week to ten days, the junk mail has time to go through numerous reproductive cycles. As time goes on, the junk mail is becoming a bigger imposition.

Imposition (or rather the lack of it) is probably the best explanation for my lapses in the art of domestic science. Until lately, the clutter hasn’t disturbed me; I’ve been oblivious to its ceaseless encroachment. My ignorance has continued until I’ve run out of empty space and my piles have reached heights that threaten their stability. Only now have I come to believe I have a problem.

As I finally acknowledge my oblivion and it’s consequences, I come to realize I must become proactive. The first step is to identify and accept my disability. I now do that. I admit I am, in politically correct terms, domestically challenged. With this in mind, I am left with two options: either overcome my handicap, or hire a contractor to build an addition to my home. I can’t afford the latter. Therefore, I must overcome. I must use every method I can to regain control of my home.

Instant Envy

June 27, 2008

I received an email this morning from a woman who was a classmate of mine at Schaeffer School in the Crafton Heights section of Pittsburgh. She wanted me to know that she enjoyed reading my blog and, by the way, I might want to check out the blog she and her husband have been writing during their four month sojourn in various foreign countries.

I did check it out and invite you to do likewise. You can click on Bill & Claire’s Trip on the right (in the box labeled BLOGROLL). Let me know if it affects you as it did me – instant envy!

How many countries have you been to? Perhaps you live in one of the countries Bill & Claire have visited. How many world travelers are reading my ramblings? Let me know which countries are your favorites. Also, if you have any money saving tips for tourists, feel free to share them with us.

Maybe we can use this space to share thoughts on travel… especially with the dollar struggling against the Euro, Pound, and other currencies.

Come to think of it, Europeans should find travel to the states a real bargain. I have friends in many states. Let me know if you have any questions about U.S. destinations and we’ll try to get you answers from the common people – those who really know the best places to eat and stay.

Don’t forget to check out Bill & Claire’s blog.

Vacations and T-Shirts

June 27, 2008

Summer vacations are a time to relax. To me, that means putting on short pants and a T-shirt. I can complete my outfit with either sandals, or sweat socks and sneakers. Of course, if I’m lucky enough to be walking along a beach, I’ll go barefoot and enjoy the water.

T-shirts are definitely a part of my warm weather wardrobe and when it comes to vacation destinations, I’m a sucker for the souvenir T-shirts that can be found in most gift shops and department stores. The souvenir T-shirts come in two basic varieties – those with a pretty picture of wherever it is you happen to be, and those with silly sayings emblazoned across the front, or back, or both. The pretty pictures are nice, but I prefer the silly slogans.

One of my current favorites (that I wear even when I’m not on vacation) has “Will work for beer” written across the front. I bought that one during an extended weekend in Bradenton, Florida. One of my older favorites – that I wore into oblivion – said, “Give me coffee and no one gets hurt!”

I love T-shirts. I love T-shirts with humorous messages even more. “The only thing active about me is my imagination” was a favorite that worked its way into my bride’s rag bin. “Life is too short to waste on cheap beer” is one that is relatively new, but will most likely follow many others into the pail of discarded cotton garments.

One of my all-time favorites wasn’t even mine. A friend wore it; I could only yearn for one just like it for myself. It said, “Had I known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of my body.” That reminds me of a T-shirt I wear when I sing with a group that entertains at retirement homes. It says, “Nostalgia – The older they get, the better they were.” In my sixties, I’m still young enough to find humor in jokes about getting older.

I think people who wear humorous T-shirts demonstrate a willingness to make fun of themselves. In some cases, however, it demonstrates a willingness to be the butt of someone else’s joke. A case in point is the combo T-shirts with one saying, “I’m with stupid” while the other says, “I’m stupid.” That’s like the hat I once saw that said, “I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid.” I think anyone who wears messages like these might have trouble with a basic intelligence test, but that’s only my opinion. I could be wrong.

Some of the other slogans that have made me laugh over the years include: “I live in my own little world, but it’s ok . . . they know me here”; “My imaginary friend thinks you have serious mental problems”; “No Job, No Money, No Car, but I’m in a band”; and “My wife ran away with my best friend. I sure do miss him”.

The list of humorous slogans seems endless. “Be nice to your kids, they’ll choose your nursing home”, “Don’t get married, just find a woman you hate and buy her a house”, “99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name”, “Wrinkled Was Not One of the Things I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up”, and “All men are Idiots, and I married their king” are a few that are good for some real old-fashioned belly laughs.

Some slogans are loosely based on puns or the transposition of words. Two examples that come to mind are “Time’s fun when you’re having flies — Kermit the Frog” and “My wild oats have turned into shredded wheat.”

One T-shirt slogan that you probably would not like to see on a retail clerk is “I can only please one person a day. Today isn’t your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either”.

And then there are the slogans designed for people of various age groups. “I’m retired. This is as dressed up as I get” would not have much impact if worn by a three year old. However, “That’s it!! I’m telling Grandma” would work well for any toddler.

“Lord, keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth” would certainly be fitting for many of us who have a tendency to say things we later regret.

My all-time favorite, that I wore out long ago, had the following inspirational thought on it, “No man is completely worthless; He can always serve as a bad example.” That one has been tough to beat, but maybe this is the summer that I find the perfect replacement. My hopes to find that replacement were heightened this morning when a friend told me about a T-shirt he recently saw. It said, “What if the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about?”

If you have a personal favorite, click on the comments button below and tell us about it. Thanks.

Constipation or Consternation – Is There a Difference?

June 27, 2008

My eyes are brown because I’m constipated. That’s what my Aunt Tillie told me. She was a Registered Nurse, which would make her an expert on such matters. Of course, when she broke this news to me, she didn’t use the nice medical terms. She just blurted out that I was full of it.

Aunt Tillie died several years ago. So have many of my other aunts and uncles. In fact, I have only one aunt left. Aunt Alice is in her late nineties. She lives with her only daughter, Peggy, who is now in her seventies.

Over the last year and a half, there have been four weddings in my extended family. My bride and I managed to make it to all of them. Come to think of it, one of them was ours! We also attended two weddings in Lu’s extended family.

During all that mingling with kinfolk, the idea of a family reunion was repeatedly brought up. Those of us who made the various trips (Colorado and Montana were included) had a marvelous time. But we missed the family members who were unable to join us.

To make matters worse, my two brothers (twins) who still live in our hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania both suffered heart attacks in that same time frame. Their wives have both had medical problems as well.

If we wanted to see everyone at an event other than a funeral, we had to do something soon. It’s unlikely we could get Aunt Alice or my brothers to leave Pittsburgh, so whatever we did would have to be done in Pittsburgh. I’m the youngest of six children, which, as any youngest child knows, makes me the likely candidate to be volunteered by the older siblings. And of the four of us who have moved away from Pittsburgh, I’m the closest… geographically speaking. Fate was pounding me from all sides. I agreed to organize a reunion.

Recall the numbers I’ve recited thus far. Actually, the only important number at this point is six. That’s the number of surviving children born to our parents. Getting six people to meet in Pittsburgh for one weekend seems like a simple task. We may or may not be able to achieve that task.

My one sister who lives in Florida decided it was too far to travel until my other sister in Florida found round-trip airfare for under a hundred and fifty dollars. In the meantime, my brother in California retired. That meant he’d be able to make it with no sweat. He’d be able to drive.

My brother in California is terrified of flying. He does so only when there’s no other way to get to wherever it is he’s supposed to be in time for whatever it is he’s supposed to attend. If he must fly, he finds ways to numb himself to the experience. Even then, it’s “white knuckles” all the way.

He would’ve been able to drive had he stayed retired. However, he’s now working as a host at a campground somewhere in Idaho. If he goes to the reunion, it’ll have to be aboard a big noisy bird. He will not be a happy camper or campground host.

So, of the original six, we should have at least five of us in attendance. That was easy. The rest has not been.

My sister Wilda, whose husband is deceased, has two children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, five grandchildren, a grandson-in-law, and three great grandchildren. They are scattered throughout four states. That’s a total of fourteen people to try to get to Pittsburgh for a weekend. The good news is they’re all on the east coast.

My sister Gertrude, whose husband is also deceased, has two children, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren, one granddaughter-in-law, two grandsons-in-law, and two great grandchildren. They are scattered more than the hash browns at the Waffle House. Recall I mentioned Colorado and Montana earlier. Add Florida and Seattle, Washington to that mix. That’s another thirteen to find extra beds for.

My brother Lew, now hosting a campground in Idaho, has a wife, four children, two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and seven or eight grandchildren. (Sorry, I’ve lost count.) They are spread out from South Carolina, to Missouri, California, Washington, and, of course, Idaho. If my math is any good, we now have another sixteen or seventeen mouths to feed.

My other brother Lew, and my brother Bill also have large families, but they live in and around Pittsburgh… except for my nephew Bill who lives in Portland, Oregon. They can find their own accommodations.

If we add me, my bride, my four children, two daughters-in-law, one significant other, and three grandchildren we’re now looking at a potential number somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred.

Trying to keep all these people straight and trying to get them to hold still long enough to be counted has been an absolute nightmare. Then OPEC decided to make things even more difficult. As the gasoline prices went up, the number of family members planning to attend went down.

In the meantime, my sister Gertrude suggested I contact various cousins. I wrote letters to cousin Ruth in Philadelphia and cousin Shirley in Pittsburgh. The next thing I knew people were asking me why I’d decided to have two reunions and exactly when the one in Georgia was going to be held.

Gertrude broke this news to me. She’d been talking on the phone to cousin Peggy, Aunt Alice’s daughter. Cousin Peggy had been talking to cousin Shirley who misunderstood my letter. Gertrude tried to explain to Peggy that Shirley had read the letter wrong, but Peggy couldn’t understand what Gertrude was saying because Peggy’s deaf.

Cousin Peggy has been deaf in at least one ear since 1974. That’s the year my father died. At the funeral I found myself riding in a limousine with Aunt Alice and Peggy. They both had their deaf ears pointing toward me sitting between them. Of course they insisted on carrying on a conversation with each other. It went something like this.

Aunt Alice: Isn’t that the house where Margaret Johnson used to live?

Cousin Peggy: WHAT?




And so on for what seemed like a lifetime.

About a week after the confusion began, and a few days after I sent a second letter to my cousins, I got an e-mail from the widow of another of my cousins. Kathy wanted to know why the reunion was being held in Georgia. Come to think of it, she’s also a Registered Nurse. Perhaps she’d heard about my consternation and decided to poke a bit of fun. In any case, she is planning to attend the reunion. That’s a good thing; Cousin Shirley won’t come unless Kathy picks her up and takes her.

I’m not sure why Shirley won’t accept a ride from anyone else. I’m not going to ask. But it does make me sad. There’s some problem within the family that is not being discussed and, therefore, has no hope of being resolved.

My bride’s father recently attended a funeral in Chicago; it was for one of Lu’s cousins. Another of Lu’s cousins made the trip with Lu’s dad. The cousin making the trip was paying her last respects to a person she hadn’t talked to in twenty or thirty years. Neither of them would discuss the problem with anyone. They had a problem and they held on to it… to the end.

I pray that our family doesn’t have similar severe problems. I want this reunion to be a memorable occasion. I want everyone to have a great time. I want to be able to say, “I did my job well.”

However, if they expect me to organize the next one, I’ll tell them all they have brown eyes.

UPDATE: This article was written in 2000. Fortunately, we had more than fifty people attend the reunion, and that included all six of us ‘children’. It was the first time all six of us had been together at one time since 1966. Sadly, it was the last time we’ll ever be together in this world; we lost our brother Bill in 2002. We’ve also lost Aunt Alice.

During the reunion, I asked all my relatives – young and old – to write down all they could remember about parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren. The only way our descendants will know anything about us is by our recording the information and passing it down to them.

If you have older relatives with knowledge of your ancestors, take the time to talk with them and learn all you can while there is still time.