Master of None

January 21, 2011

Is the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” still used? I don’t hear it as much as I once did. Then again, there’s a lot of things I don’t hear any more.

From time to time I like to do a self-evaluation. I think it is good for the soul. So, that’s what I’m doing today.

I once had a friend ask if there was anything I couldn’t do. He then listed a number of my accomplishments and made me feel better about myself than I had in years… maybe even decades! It was a wonderful compliment.

However, when I look at it through the lens of “Jack of all trades, BUT master of none”, I wonder where I really stand.

So, let’s take inventory.

I can sing. I’ve been singing ever since my parents paraded me out in front of our relatives and their friends and had me sing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People.” I have sung in church choirs, folk groups, a college choir, a fraternity trio known as “The Horny Toads”, the Tom Fallon Singers in Pittsburgh, and currently with the group called “Nostalgia” that entertains senior citizen groups.

I have never been offered a recording contract… and most likely will not. I’m too old to audition for “American Idol”, which is their loss, and probably wouldn’t get passed the initial auditions of “America’s Got Talent”. I’ll continue to sing in obscurity.

I can cook. I grew up with three brothers (our two sisters were married and had moved out while I was still an infant). All four of us boys were active outside the home and didn’t always make it home for dinner.

Mom made it clear that she was not running a cafeteria; if we were not there at dinner time, we’d have to fend for ourselves. While Dad was always there for Mom’s meals, he also liked to mess around in the kitchen. He served as a role model for his sons, and we were all fearless.

Over time, two of my brothers and myself evolved into the primary cooks in our homes. The other brother married an Italian woman who would not allow such foolishness.

I have cooked for people at homeless shelters, religious retreat weekends, pancake breakfasts, Irish dinners, and numerous other large groups. I cook the majority of meals at home.

I have never attended a culinary arts school and have never worked in a restaurant. I will never have my own show on the food channel and I will not run around the world sampling bizarre foods.

I’m a good cook, but will never be a master chef.

I can write. In high school I loved essay tests. I would write page after page about topics I knew nothing about, and the teachers would give me a decent grade rather than take the time to read it all and discover I was practicing for my B.S. degree.

I’ve written letters, essays, poems, limericks, novels, short stories, and newspaper and magazine articles. I was paid $100 by a magazine that went bust before my article was ever printed.

That is the bottom line of my writing career – $100 for something that was never read by the general public.

I’ll never be the next Mark Twain or Stephen King.

I can produce offspring. I have three sons and a daughter.

During their childhood, I tried to be a good father. I spent many hours with them in various sports, Indian Guides, and other activities. I attended open houses, school plays, band concerts, and other school sponsored events. I helped them move into dormitories and bailed them out financially. I loaned them money to buy cars and to make mortgage and rent payments. I attended weddings, and the births of grandchildren.

Our home today would appear to have children living here all the time. We have a room full of toys and children’s videos, a sand box, and a slide from the deck down to the sand box. We have a large wading pool set up during the summer months, and we have no children living here.

I like to think I was an above average father, but never expect to be nominated for father of the year. I’m sure my children see me more as Homer Simpson than Ward Cleaver.

So, there you have it. I’m sure there are other things I could list – work with wood to build furniture, build concrete walks and steps, screen in a porch, cut down trees and clear land for a house, finish a basement (wiring and all) and renovate a kitchen. But I would never qualify as a master builder or tradesman. I also built a free-standing two-car garage that is still standing after eleven years.

But I have to be totally honest.

I can’t dance.


Living off the Land

August 12, 2009

One of my ancestors, Jeremiah Leeds (1754 – 1838), was a master when it came to living off the land.

The following is from “The Daily Union History of Atlantic City and County” by John F. Hall, Published 1900:

Jeremiah Leeds (1754 – 1838), the first permanent (white) settler on this island, so far as known, like many of his fellow-countrymen one hundred years ago, was a man of stalwart mould. He stood six feet in height and weighed fully two hundred and fifty pounds and was a Quaker. There is no evidence that he left the Quaker neighborhood at Leeds Point and came to this island to live permanently previous to 1783, when he was twenty-nine years old. He built his first log cabin and cleared away the field where it stood. He raised several crops of corn and rye and became thoroughly familiar with the very great abundance of wild ducks and geese and many kinds of sea fowl which then were tame and plenty, but are now rarely seen. He no doubt experienced the great pest of mosquitoes where there were so many ponds and swamps among the sand hills, and assisted as a wrecker in those days when many vessels with valuable cargoes were lost on the Brigantine shoals. It is difficult in these days to fully appreciate the advantages and the disadvantages which this stretch of beach afforded a young man who seems to have had no aspirations for political honors, but had his way in the world. The records at Trenton show, that he had risen to be First Lieutenant in Captain Joseph Covenover’s Sixth Company, Third Battalion, Gloucester County Militia, his commission bearing the date of September 18, 1777.

For fifty-five years this stalwart son of the Revolution lived on this lonely island and prospered, occupying log cabins till a more pretentious frame structure could be built in his old age. He raised cattle and grain and sold to passing vessels his surplus products and was under but little expense for taxes or the luxuries of life.

He was careful to build brush fences along the beach to catch the sand and build up the sand-hills to keep high tides out of the fresh water ponds so necessary for the wild fowl which comprised an important part of his food supply. He disliked to have sportsmen trespass upon his estate, though he always granted permission to shoot game under certain restrictions when he was asked.

He was particular to keep away from his sand-hills the cattle and horses which owners on the mainland brought over here in the summer to pasture. If the grass were eaten off, the sand-hills would blow away, which was detrimental to his policy of building up the island. The big sand-hills, which many now living can remember, were the result of the care and vigilance of patriarch Leeds, the original proprietor.

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In case you’re wondering why a Quaker fought in the Revolutionary War (against the Society of Friends teachings of non-violence), we need only consider this additional information provided by Mr. Hall.

Jeremiah Leeds, in his old age, used to tell the story of a visit which his father, John Leeds, received one day from foraging Redcoats, just before the Revolution.

A British vessel entered Great Bay in full view from Leeds Point. Two barges with soldiers and sailors came ashore for fresh meat. The captain ordered the Quaker farmer to drive up his cattle which were grazing in the meadows nearby. This was done, where upon two fat steers were selected from the herd and quickly knocked in the head, their bodies quartered, loaded on wagons and taken to the barges and to the ship.

“All right. That’s all,” was the farewell greeting of the captain to the farmer, who considered himself lucky in losing so little by the uninvited visitors. The steers happened to be the personal property of Jeremiah and his brother, and were worth perhaps at that time six or eight dollars per head. This event had its effect in making a soldier of a Quaker boy in the war of the Revolution which soon followed.

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Another ‘by the way’, the island that Jeremiah occupied is now better known as Atlantic City.

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Sadly, Jeremiah was part of a tiny minority of humans who tried to take care of the land upon which their lives depended. Over the centuries, industrialists and others have taken a far different approach.

For example, starting in the 1600’s, wealthy men decided that ivory billiard balls were far superior to their wooden and clay predecessors. The best source of ivory at the time was the tusks of elephants. And the only way to get the tusk of an elephant was to kill the beast.

Over the next couple of hundred years, thousands of elephants were destroyed so that their ivory tusks could be ‘harvested’. The tusks were the only things carried away by the hunters; the bodies were left to rot where they lay.

One might think that humans eventually came to their senses and recognized the evil of slaughtering innocent animals so men of wealth could strike ivory balls with wooden sticks. That wasn’t it at all. The truth is that the manufacturers of the billiard balls recognized that the world was running low on elephants. For them to remain in business, they had to find a substitute material.

Obviously, animal life has often been seen as insignificant. The great American Buffalo slaughter was not caused by the population’s insatiable appetite for Bison steaks. On the contrary, humans wanted the hides. The leather was perfect for machine belts during the Industrial Revolution, and the winter coats of the animals worked well for winter coats for humans.

The meat of the animals was left to rot much like the elephant’s carcasses.

And the blame cannot be laid at the feet of men like Buffalo Bill Cody. The animals he shot were used to feed the armies of railroad workers.

In truth, the first people to slaughter Buffaloes for the skins were the American Indians who sold the hides to the white businessmen.

I’ve heard of numerous complaints about air and water quality in the United States. Perhaps growing up in Pittsburgh gives me a different perspective.

When I was a lad, people used their headlights during the day and mothers hung their wash in the basement to keep it clean while it dried. Very few people fished in the three rivers because of all the chemical pollutants.

Today, the air is much cleaner and the rivers have become a sportsman’s paradise with trout, pike, bass, and many other species being caught on a regular basis.

Our country has done a tremendous job in reducing pollution. Is there more that needs to be done? Of course, but things are so much better than they were.

I guess you’d have to see how bad it was before you could recognize how much better it is.

As for the senseless killing of animals… unfortunately, the slaughter continues. Poachers are killing mountain gorillas so people can have vases made out of their feet, elephants are still being killed for their tusks, sharks are killed for their fins, bears for their livers, and so on.

It’s very similar to the drug trade. As long as there is someone with a wad of money willing to buy these items, men will kill innocent animals so they can feed their families.

We, as humans, have a tendancy to look the other way to avoid seeing the evils in this world. Besides, we have to keep up with the lives and deaths of people like Michael Jackson and the next American Idol. Those things are far more important.


Cap & Trade or Michael Jackson

July 7, 2009

Regardless of which side of the issue you’re on, it should bother you that the news media is spending far more time keeping the American people up to date on the Michael Jackson memorial service than they are in informing us of the progress of the Cap & Trade legislation.

And why are they placing so much emphasis on a dead celebrity? Why are they ignoring more important issues that could affect all tax payers?

Some right wing conservatives would have us believe that the left leaning media is intentionally taking the focus away from Congress so the Obama administration can shove another giant spending (and taxing) bill down our throats.

The left wing radicals would argue otherwise.

Naturally – and unfortunately – the truth has nothing to do with politics. Sadly, the media is giving the American public what the American public wants. I’ll admit I haven’t checked, but I’d bet that any broadcast of the American Idol show garnered a much larger share of the viewing public than any of the Presidential debates.

The truth is a large portion of our population doesn’t care about what goes on in Washington, D.C. In fact, they care even less about what goes on in their own state capitols.

Many years ago I attended a Key Club convention in Philadelphia. Each delegate was given a key ring. On one side was the Key Club logo. On the other was the phrase, “Combat Complacency.”

I believe we’ve lost the battle. In the 1960’s, college students stood up and voiced their opinions. While many of them were wrong in their beliefs, they all had the courage to stand up for what they believed. As a result, many things in our society were changed.

The youth of my youth took the time to learn about things that mattered. Sometimes they heard one side of the story and jumped to incorrect conclusions, but in most instances, they looked at both sides and came to good logical conclusions.

I’m afraid today’s youth are too busy twittering their lives away.

Perhaps that’s the major difference. While we didn’t have CNN, FOX News Channel, C-SPAN, or… come to think of it, we didn’t have any cable channels because we didn’t have cable. We also didn’t have lap top computers and the Internet. But we did have newspapers, news magazines, and the library.

We paid attention to the world around us – sweat bullets during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and felt a responsibility to speak out against what we saw as injustice.

Perhaps that was the influence of John F. Kennedy. I know we all admired the man and took the “New Frontier” very seriously. And we all deeply mourned his passing.

Until President Obama came along, we hadn’t had another President who could reach out and stir the interest of the youth as JFK did. But it appears that the interest of our current youth petered out once their man was elected.

It’s a shame because, the way I see it, it’s the youth and future generations who will be most harmed by what is currently happening in Washington.

The U.S. Government has no business being in business. Every time government has taken over an industry, that industry stops being self-sufficient. For example, independent bus and trolley companies operated in major cities for decades. They competed for riders and most of those companies were profitable.

The companies that couldn’t compete went out of business and their assets were bought up by the other companies. Then, the government decided to take over. The two ‘companies’ I’m most familiar with – the Port Authority Transit (PAT) in Pittsburgh and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit  Authority (MARTA) – have both operated at a loss for decades. Taxpayer subsidies are the only way they stay afloat.

Will General Motors be any different? Will taxpayer subsidized pricing put Ford, Chrysler, and others out of business?

The Federal Government has put itself in a very awkward position. Congress is talking about passing a ‘clunker bill’ that will give citizens a tax break for trading in an old car for a new, more fuel efficient, car. Will the tax break be higher for those of us who buy a GM product? It would make sense if the government wants their ‘company’ to flourish.

But wouldn’t that be unfair to the other companies? Does the government care?

There are many people who believe the economic crisis could’ve been solved months ago simply by the government letting workers keep their entire paychecks. Think about that. The typical worker has almost a third of his or her paycheck withheld every pay day. If that money had been available to the individuals, they would’ve spent it. Even if they simply paid off some bills, the economy would’ve improved.

Foreclosures would’ve been reduced dramatically and banks would’ve had more money for other loans. Consumers would’ve bought more cars, televisions, and other big ticket items… which would’ve resulted in more jobs.

If consumers bought Fords and Toyotas rather than Chevys and Buicks, GM would’ve had to fix their problems or go out of business. With increased sales, the other auto makers would’ve been able to buy GM factories and put the former GM employees to work building other makes of cars.

Is it too late for the government to get out of the auto business? I hope not. And while they’re at it, they should also get out of the banking and investment businesses.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s time for MARTA and PAT to liquidate and let the private sector show the politicians how it should be done.

Considering the business acumen of most politicians, it wouldn’t take a business genius to repair the damage done by congress. Think of it! How many politicians have held a ‘real’ job during their adult life. There may be a few, but most of them were borderline lawyers who recognized they could make a lot more money supporting the causes of special interest groups.

If they were intelligent enough to be successful business people, why would they even consider becoming a member of Congress?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and see if Michael has been buried yet.