Falling Out

We were having lunch at my favorite arts and crafts festival and my brother decided he didn’t like what we were having and went off to find something else to eat. We settled in with our crab cake sandwiches and coleslaw and John returned15 minutes later with nothing more than a scowl on his face.

“Security was following me around,” he huffed. Since he is himself a cop, it annoys him that some other jurisdiction deems him suspicious. “I thought they were looking me over because I maybe looked familiar – like we’d met at a conference or something. But – no. It was like they were getting ready to stop me.”

John is your basic 40-something who dresses like every other 40-something and, were we anywhere else, I would have been equally outraged. But there he was – a lone male heterosexual . . . alone . . . at a craft fair . . . and he wasn’t carrying a single package for his wife.

I’m surprised he wasn’t strip-searched.

PCD (political correctness disclaimer): Someone is going to ask me how they would have known that John was heterosexual, particularly in view of the fact that he is a very tidy person. Oh, lighten up. Everyone knows gay guys would only be at an arts and crafts festival with their significant other or their gal pal – or hawking the refurbished antiques in the furniture tent. I don’t make the rules.

Fall is festival time in the Shenandoah Valley, strategically scheduled for men to garner brownie points with their wives in preparation for football season and March madness. (PCD: Of course I acknowledge there are women who enjoy pro sports – didn’t we all before the Man of Our Dreams sealed the commitment? Remember that moment of satisfaction when we heard him brag to The Guys, “…and she loves football!” Heh. Sucker.)

It stands to reason. Autumn is a beautiful time around here. The federal government scarfed up all the money-making opportunities of tourists wanting to go leaf peeping on top of a high mountain ridge. The Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park notwithstanding, fall scenery is a pretty hard resource to charge admission to.

And so we have the Festival of Festivals, so to speak. They range from slick productions like the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival – drawing hundreds of vendors from all over the country and a clientele just as diverse – to tiny local affairs where we basically make money off each other – a sort of gentlemen’s agreement that if we attend Edinburg’s Olde Time Festival, they will attend our Oktoberfest.

Mostly it’s just an excuse to have funnel cake.

The larger the venue, of course, the more high-end the merchandise. You won’t find a single crocheted toilet paper cover at Mountain Heritage. But if you’re in the market for a full John Deere kitchen set or “Git ‘r’ Done” wall plaques, then the local fairs should do you just fine.

As a bonus, with the local events you also get a parade which means that every Saturday morning for the entire season there is only one fire department covering the entire area. Everyone else is part of each other’s parade.

There are also local high school bands, but this early in the school year they only know one song: “On Wisconsin.” And, this being the south, there is a flock of be-sashed and tiara-ed beauty queens waving regally atop mounds of papier-mâché and crepe paper.

The valley is also the D.C. area’s go-to locale for corn mazes and pumpkin patches. Some of the local farmers haul out their farm animals for the city kids to traumatize. Also, you can go to practically any large farm and, for a fee, they’ll cover their manure-hauling flatbed trailer with hay bales and drag you around on it. Just know they consider this highly amusing to talk about over coffee on weekday mornings down at the diner.

I’ll admit I’m not totally immune to the fall festival attitude. I’ve purchased a couple of decorative pumpkins, even though there are no Heirs left to carve them. I’ll probably cave in and buy a bushel of apples. And, of course, there is Rinker Orchard’s Cider, which is possibly the single reason God invented apples – that whole snake thing being a pure accident.

By all means, have a leaf peep up on Skyline Drive. But if that’s all you see of the Shenandoah Valley in the fall, you’re missing a great sideshow.

But, guys — you might want to be carrying packages wherever you go.

I’m Okay; You’re Not So Good

I guess I wasn’t home the day Katie Couric – or anyone else – called for my opinion on healthcare reform.

I’m particularly disappointed to have missed Katie’s call, which I’m sure happened, seeing as she used to live in these parts; ya know – where I have a following. . . or at least a readership . . . providing my neighbors and my brothers count as a readership.

At any rate, I was anxious for Katie to give me the national spotlight so I would have the opportunity to apologize on behalf of my circle of acquaintances.

You see, I am convinced they are the ones driving up the cost of healthcare and skewing the numbers, making the whole country appear to be sicker than we actually are.

The fact is that, other than myself, my husband and my two sons, I don’t know a single normal, healthy person. Getting together with friends is a field of medical landmines that must be delicately avoided lest you serve something dangerous and exotic like, say, cream for the coffee, and trigger a long-winded history of a friend’s recent epiphany about having been lactose-intolerant “all these years.”

Truly, that wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that such a revelation can derail an entire gathering and turn it into a panel discussion on the digestive systems of all in attendance. No amount of Pictionary can salvage such an evening.

I had a long-standing policy when among women to not bring up the subject of pregnancy. Apparently all my mom-friends possessed the most twisted mutations of the female anatomy since Olive Oyl. When I walked into a party and saw the living room full of men, I knew that I was going to go into the kitchen and hear a litany of obstetric horror stories. Apparently only my sons and Harry Chapin‘s kids “came into the world in the usual way.”

These days, though, the Ladies of the Wonky Female Plumbing are experiencing their first bouts with menopause. Apparently they are the first females of our species to encounter this milestone.

Frankly, I couldn’t tell you when the female members of my family went through menopause. I recall my Aunt Angelina throwing open the back door and fanning herself during a major snowstorm – but that’s about it. When asked why she was doing this, her only explanation was to scream, “IT’S NOT BECAUSE I’M GOING THROUGH MENOPAUSE.” So, obviously, the women of my family were asymptomatic during menopause.

The same cannot be said for my peers, though. Not a one can bear to quietly and gracefully bid farewell to fertility. Last month a bunch of them decided that they needed hormones. I don’t know who started it (I always suspect Oprah), but suddenly they all needed it – the problem being that no one really liked the idea that everyone else needed the same thing.

The result of this is that suddenly, for some, the hormones were not enough and something much more exotic was required; while, for others, the hormones were of the wrong type and something more exotic was required; and then there was a rogue few for whom the hormones would not work at all, requiring the employment of alternative treatments so exotic insurance would not cover them.

Along with this onset of menopause came the sudden revelation from among the group that, apparently, my husband and I are the only ones white-knuckling it through our middle years. It seems we know a group of really sad men and women and didn’t know it because they’re all on anti-depressants. Okay, not all – 13 out of the 17 I know about for sure.

There isn’t room enough for me to go into all the syndromes that have swept through our little group, many with symptoms like “fatigue” and “muscle aches” which, to me, are more symptoms of the fact that we’re all around 50 years old and acting like we’re still able to take down a 17-year-old kid on the basketball court. You know who you are.

I know I should feel lucky to be 52 years old with no major illnesses. Instead I feel kind of left out. There is a certain bonding that goes on with medical kvetching. Some people join book clubs; some people join the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Support Group.

Well, I might come down with something yet. I have an under-active thyroid that shows promise!

An Employers’ Market

At last, the public humiliation is over.

Many of you know what I am talking about: the agony caused by having to look for a job in what is clinically referred to as an “employers’ job market;” meaning, there are fewer jobs than there are poor slobs like me to fill them, resulting in what I clinically refer to as “applicant abuse.”

There are the usual degradations of job hunting at the age of 52: being the only one in the interview queue being courted by mail from AARP or assuring “personnel supervisors” only a few years older than my son that technology does not “scare” me. And, of course, there are the round-about ways of asking questions that are illegal to ask; surreptitious ways of asking if I am ill or, if the interviewer is truly biologically clueless, pregnant.

One application came right out and asked the date of my “last period.” I answered, “I use periods constantly in my writing, so I guess the answer would be ‘today.'” I was never called back.

To my credit, it was the only time I resorted to sarcasm during the entire year and a half of job hunting – though it took all my strength to hold my tongue sometimes.

Interviewer: So, if your husband’s soil business picks back up, will you quit to help him, or continue to work at this crappy minimum wage job requiring back breaking labor and being treated with contempt and distrust?

Me: Oh, I plan to stay here forever and work tirelessly to convince the American public that we truly are rolling back prices with no sacrifice to social conscience or environmental concerns. Can I wear that smiley-face sticker home?

Okay, I never really applied to that place – not only because I hold it in contempt, but also because I would actually lose money working there. In fact, that was the case with most of the easier jobs to get, thanks to gas prices. I say this because I know there are those among my acquaintances for whom hearing me utter the words, “Would you like fries with that,” would make their day.

True applicant abuse, though, are the countless applications I sent to phantom e-mail addresses, never to receive a confirmation of receipt or a response informing me a position had been filled; it’s not calling to cancel an interview when a position has been filled, requiring me to drive an hour and a half to be told “never mind;” it’s putting out all the effort required to fill out a civil service application only to find they had filled the position from within long ago and only posted it publicly because of legal requirements.

I boldly point these things out now that I have a job – with an employer who engaged in none of that nonsense. Our interview was straightforward and honest. He told me my salary and admitted it wasn’t enough. I warned him about what he would find when he had my credit investigated and confessed I was from New Jersey.

I walked out of the interview with a job. I don’t think the New Jersey thing was much of a surprise.

My employer runs a group of farms that raise fresh food to augment the canned and prepared foods offered by food pantries. One of the farms is on his own land, the bulk of which he has turned over to fields of vegetables to feed the hungry.

My job is to recruit and organize the volunteers that make the harvest possible, a task that required me to take a giant step out of my comfort zone, pick up a phone and actually talk to people. . . on the phone. . . in person. At one point I had to talk on the radio in person, which cost me a week of sleep and, almost, a marriage (had I been married to anyone other than Dirtman, who views my insecurities as “cute” rather than the raging self-centered, self-absorbing vanity that they really are).

But here is the even more-amazing part that occurred to me only after I’d been working at the farm for a few weeks: My boss started this foundation at the beginning of the housing boom – meaning he could have sold his land for millions and retired to Florida. Instead, the only remuneration he receives is a tax break and a handful of staff that stopped counting their hours long ago.

Oh – and there’s that alleviating hunger thing. We try not to be too heavy-handed about pointing that part out, though. It makes people uncomfortable.

I’m new there, though, and I still can’t help swaggering about it. Mostly because I’m working for the polar opposite of everything that smiley-face represents.

Last of the Summer Whine

In my book, August is almost as dismal and depressing as February. I know summer isn’t over until Sept. 21, but my summer is over once I no longer have a vacation to anticipate and after I’ve had a tomato sandwich for lunch for 30 straight days.

This sounds ungrateful of course. There is all that fresh produce from the garden; all that sunshine and warmth – all that warmth.

Enough with the warmth.

At the beginning of summer, we were a beehive of planned activities. There were picnics and barbeques planned, a vacation in the works, a stack of books for shady afternoons and slow, informal dinners of fresh vegetables to look forward to. My sons were coming and going, swimming or playing tennis, going on camping trips and hikes. We never knew who or how many would show up for dinner.

In August, though, it’s an effort just to drag dinner out to the patio, let alone pack a hamper to take somewhere. My vacation tan has pretty much faded and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my book stack may have been a little ambitious for the time I had.

Those leisurely dinners have been cancelled due to the overwhelming amount of produce belching from our little garden. After canning 50 jars of tomatoes, a bowl of pasta in a light tomato basil sauce accompanied by a fruity, light zinfandel loses its charm. We go straight for a few belts of wine then fall into bed.

And little by little my sons’ pool of friends has begun to whittle down as each one leaves for college. The tearful goodbyes (at least on my part) are now a regular part of our week.

My own son will…No. That has nothing to do with any of this.

The laundry, a never-ending battle around here, hangs limp on the line, soaking up the humidity. I can usually have two or three loads washed, hung out on the line, dried and put away by 3 o’clock. But these days I spend the day checking to see if they’re dry until the daily evening thunderstorm comes along and I haul them all in to dry in the damp, humid basement. Still, every morning, hope springs eternal and I trot them out and hang them up. I’ve been drying the same load of laundry since July 24.

The six dogs, once exuberant to be outside exploring all day, now hesitate by the back door, deciding between relieving themselves in the heat and taking a nap in the air conditioning. They usually choose to hold it until the last possible moment, at which point they run outside to do their business, keeping an eye on the door lest I leave them out there.

If I do, the next time I look out they have formed themselves in front of the door into an anxious arc of slobbering, panting, shedding machines. You would think they’d search out a cool, shady spot. Instead they stare me down to remind me that, “It’s nice and shady in the air conditioned living room, Lady.”

I’ll rally in September. I always do. When the Shenandoah Valley ignites with color and every weekend holds the promise of festivals and antiquing, I will press my personal reset button and make a new plan for myself.

But in August, that seems like a long way off and first I have to get through the weekend my son…No. That has nothing to do with any of this.

I try my old mood lifting standbys, but even they fail to pull me out of the late summer funk. I just want Sinatra to shut up about The Summer Wind and even a day hunkered down in front of Turner Classic Movies for a day of Cary Grant depresses me, only because after watching Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief there is no way to look in a mirror and feel good about yourself.

Even the birds, whose song was so noisy my husband wanted to throw shoes into the trees every morning to shut them up, are now grudgingly silent. The honeymoon that began for them this past spring is over and they have nothing else to say to each other. The kids are all grown, flying and ready to leave the nest.

And so is mine in a week and a half. But, really, that has nothing to do with any of this.

The Pickles of Wrath

I am writing this from a bunker deep within the recesses of my house. Whether this dispatch will reach anyone before tragedy overtakes us, I cannot say. Just know that I have fought the good fight. Know that, whatever happens, I did my best to mitigate the tide of what was to come.

I can hear them coming now, knocking on my door, feigning a friendly disposition and acting as if nothing was wrong. They were my friends once – neighbors and relatives. Back in the spring when all seemed possible, we exchanged information, helped each other out, borrowed tools and exchanged materials. We all shared a common goal: to bring down the price of our grocery bills.

It all seems so ironic now – how naïve we all were back then.

I remember those days, from the humble beginnings on each of our kitchen tables, laying out carefully each little patch of vegetable for which we hungered. We knew, even then, not to try anything difficult the first year. Our newly plowed soil hadn’t the years of enrichment as that of some of our more established neighbors. We would not make that newbie mistake; just a little lettuce, some tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers and squash.

And only two zucchini plants, we laughed, well remembering our office days and entering a break room festooned with useless, giant baseball bat-sized vegetables.

Then came the days we realized we were not alone. As we each broke ground on our tiny plots of soil, we’d wave to each other over fences and hedges and share advice we’d read the night before over the internet. There were those among us who had established gardens already and they offered roto-tilling services and tips specific to our local soil.

I laugh now to think of how we’d talk at night of how wonderful it was to live in such a helpful, caring community.

It started innocently enough. There was one elderly gent, a longtime resident of the area, whose garden was the envy of us all. One day, we all said, we would have a garden like that. He spoke of his early peas and potatoes. He could plant earlier than any of us, since his soil had been worked and enriched for the past 20 years.

While we watched and waited, weather having delayed the tilling of our newly-established plots, he offered us little teaser gifts of cucumbers, early tomatoes and tiny zucchini. He’d come whistling over, his straw hat at a jaunty angle, and show us what just a little patience and effort would eventually afford us.

Then one day our own gardens suddenly began producing. For a week, each afternoon featured a show-and-tell among us as we pulled the first vegetables to be consumed that evening for dinner. We feasted on cucumber salads, zucchini and pasta, salad with grape tomatoes, fried zucchini rolls, cucumber sandwiches and tomato basil salad. We scoffed at those suckers who bought those hideous grocery store vegetables and strutted about our frugality and thrift.

When the garden began producing more than we could eat at the time, we began canning and freezing, frantically trying to keep ahead of the wave. Sure, it was the hottest time of year, but part of being frugal warriors like us was to not waste good food. So what if it meant we’d have to eat zucchini bread for every meal every day of the coming year to use up all that those two plants yielded? So what if I have enough jars of garlic dills to supply every deli between here and Vermont? We would not be wasteful!

‘But wait!’ we thought. ‘We will share our abundance!’

And that’s how it began: Each evening a representative of each household would stalk the neighborhood with an armload of vegetables, looking for someone, somewhere, upon whom to unload them.

Pretty soon we began avoiding each other, afraid that if we threw our hand up to wave, someone would stick a zucchini in it.

Our elderly neighbor for whom we had so kindly relieved his over-production? He had burrowed into the bowels of his house, the only testament of this existence the hum of his air conditioner. We suspect he is the one who prowls the neighborhood at night, leaving grocery bags of cucumbers on people’s doorknobs. We’ve had to release the dogs several times at night.

That’s the only time we open our doors these days. That — and to throw the useless, giant baseball-bat sized zucchini into the compost pile.

The Griping Piping Plover

Though I grew up 10 minutes from the eastern coastline of the U.S., I probably spent less time there than most people who lived hours away. But for the first 24 years of my life, I was dependent on the economy generated by our proximity to the shore.

With all due respect to my native state, New Jersey beaches are either too crowded and noisy (God forbid the sound of the ocean drown out someone’s boom box) or extravagantly expensive. There are no free beaches in Jersey. As a child, I couldn’t imagine what a beach looked like without the requisite parking lot and boardwalk with a sort of “toll booth” where you paid your money to access the beach.

Finally my family moved minutes away from New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park, where for a flat per-carload fee you could spend the entire day. It was the closest thing to a vacation I ever saw until my honeymoon. Ever wonder how many Italians can fit in a Chevy Bel Air? Our record was nine; it could have been 10, but we had to put the spaghetti pot and Coleman stove on the floor in the back.

Oh – and you’re not allowed to drive a second car to the park entrance, park it and have your parents strap you and your brother to the roof of their station wagon to avoid the second car fee. Please don’t ask me how I know this.

These days we occasionally find the cash to spend a week at the beach – in our case, somewhere on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where there are a wide variety of beachside experiences. You can stay in a beachfront mansion in Corolla or a tiny, vintage cottage on remote Ocracoke Island. It is pricey, though, no matter where you decide to stay and those luxurious condos are a far cry from the housing on the mainland.

But, just as my family could count on our day trips to Island Beach State Park to provide a little respite, locals in North Carolina could at least indulge the same way at parts of Hatteras Island and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. At least, that’s the way it used to be.

The buzzword at Outer Banks these days is “limited beach access.” On one side are the environmentalists; on the other are fishermen, local residents and businesspeople whose livelihood depends on unlimited beach access for tourists.

Environmentalist claim the fishermen’s use of ATVs to access their prime fishing areas threaten the habitat of the piping plover, a tiny shore bird, since the vehicles kill vegetation. The fishermen, business owners and residents claim the restriction is actually the cause of the threatened habitat since the plovers will not nest in dense vegetation. Environmentalists claim the bird is shy and delicate and will fail to thrive with beachgoers around it; their own research, though, shows the opposite.

Right now, though, in a tanking economy, Hatteras and Ocracoke islands have limited beach access, and are facing total closure – all through a series of complicated decisions based on supposition and bureaucratic doubletalk; certainly not on the findings of the National Park Service whose evaluations – even those quoted by environmentalists – report no negative impact by ATVs – other than the 20 plovers killed nationwide by the federal ATVs in their study.

At least the by-the-week renters can use the beaches contiguous to their rental units, since the plovers don’t seem to desire those beaches. All I can think of are the day trippers – those locals who drive to the beach for a day. While ATVs were the specifically cited problem, many of the access points have been barred to pedestrians as well.

According to the consent decree limiting beach access, any signs of “vandalism” results in the limited area being extended by incrementally larger spaces with each incident. So far, five vandalisms have occurred involving no threat to plovers and no damage to the natural beach environment. It doesn’t take an ornithology scientist to figure out a good way for an environmentalist to get the access limitations expanded is to wreak a little minor havoc at the entry points. All for The Cause, don’t cha know.

Right now the National Park Service’s own evaluation seems to preclude the need for the restrictions the agency has succeeded in placing on beach access. Still, more limitations loom in the future.

Indulging such sloppy science and environmental hysteria doesn’t bode well for public access to other national parks. Nor does it bode well for those of us who rely on the park system we support with our patronage and tax money.

Rules of Tourism

Since we are in the thick of vacation season and as a sort of public service, I think it’s time we review some of the more important rules of etiquette as it applies to both being a tourist and receiving tourists in your general area.

I say this because it is an issue that affects just about everyone. We’re all tourists at one time or another, even it it’s a day trip to the next county.

Most of us live at least on the way to some vacation destination. Besides, it’s good to remember there are always people like Dirtman and me, for whom anywhere is a vacation destination. Roadside historic markers were made for us.

And no one wants the get the reputation for being like the French, who seem to need help both as tourists and as hosts. I am told, though, this reputation applies only to Parisians; that the French outside of the capitol city are actually very warm and welcoming even to Americans, for whom the same cannot be said – ask any New Yorker forced to stop overnight in a small southern U.S. town.

Tourists, you need to realize that, while your entire year may have been building up to your vacation, to your hosts, you are one of many. You’re not vacationing where your mother has been busy for the past two weeks preparing your favorite foods and making sure all your special needs will be met when you arrive. Though they try, there is no way the locals can think of all your specific needs and no reason why they should. If you want food exactly like what you have at home, then stay home.

And remember – the entire venue does not exist for only you and your screaming, over-tired, over-indulged toddler you think is so cute and “precocious.” At home I might be tolerant and may even help you out. But right now I’m on vacation too and, frankly, I’ve put in my time entertaining a three-year-old and a five-year-old at the beach on the third day of pouring rain. That’s called “tough luck and better luck next year.”

There is no denying tourists can be overbearingly rude, but it is still no excuse for overall rude treatment by the locals whose economy is being boosted by the tourist trade.

I grew up 10 minutes from the New Jersey shore, a tourist magnet for the most densely-populated part of the U.S. As a teenager I recall the locals becoming so rude that the newspaper ran an annual article reminding everyone that tourists directly contributed to our local economy. It still didn’t stop some of my peers from deliberately giving wrong directions or being rude when encountering these people we called “Bennies” (a term whose origin is debated to this day).

I will confess to being, in my late teens, particularly intolerant of tourists’ timid driving techniques, though this was more because they had a tendency to pick between the hours of 8 and 9 a.m. to have their 15 mph scenic drive along the beach road, right at the time I needed to be getting to work at the bank branch along that route.

The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where I live now, is a very particular tourist attraction that draws a very particular tourist. Mostly, we are visited by people interested in history, since the highest concentration of Civil War battles were fought in this state and the entire northern valley, Northern Virginia and the Northern Neck was surveyed personally by none other than (drum roll) George Washington himself. Our visitors are often more respectful of what is here than many of the locals.

The nicest part of history being our biggest attraction is that it’s a little hard for a big corporation to come in and “market it” without destroying the very resource they’re trying to sell. Just ask Disney, who tried their darnedest to build an historic theme park on what was determined to be a former battlefield.

It’s a nice irony that this girl from New Jersey is living in an area where I’d be vacationing (and did, back when I was living in the Garden State).

There is one final rule of being I tourist I’d like to mention: When on vacation, it is not permissible to wear a shirt with the logo of the place where you are vacationing. For instance, it is good form to wear a “Las Vegas” shirt when at Ocean Beach, Md. However, it is tacky to wear an Ocracoke Island t-shirt when staying on Ocracoke Island, N.C.

Only a Bennie would do that.

Will He Ever Just Beat It?

Is it over? Can I come out now? I mean, I poked my head up last week at this time and was incredulous to the fact that it was still going on. Meanwhile, friends and family have been haranguing me as to whether I was going to address the issue.

I dodged the bullet last week, but it seems that this has still not been laid to rest.

So to speak.

It’s the elephant in the living room of every human being trying to maintain a sane point of view about the society in which we live. There is just no way to get around the subject of Michael Jackson’s death.

I was honestly going to leave this issue to his fans. To me he was an annoying media nuisance, but to each his own. I figured a week of sappy montages and exaggerations about Jackson’s importance to the music world, an afternoon funeral that would afford me the peace and quiet of having Dirtman finally turning off CNN for awhile, and we can move on in the news cycle. I could keep my opinion to myself for that long.

Then suddenly we were into week two and I realized it took less time to allegorically create the world than it did to literally bury Michael Jackson.

And, while I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, I’m giving myself a little leeway in that area because I figure there’s been so much of the opposite bombarding us, I doubt it will matter much.

I will, though, give Jackson credit for his accomplishments. He wrote a few good songs and recorded a bunch of songs that sounded very much like those few songs (Variations On the Theme of Billie Jean, if you will). He co-wrote another song that he had the good sense to have really good singers perform; singers who could make Row, Row, Row Your Boat sound like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

He was smart enough to have had the right people advising him to fill his act with enough pyrotechnics, lights, backup dancers and music to complete the illusion that he was the one with all the talent. He was a good performer, a fair dancer and he could moonwalk.

So there you go. That wasn’t so bad.

Okay. No. I can’t let it go. For God’s sake, will you look at what we’re holding up as a hero these days: A narcissistic media whore* who spent his millions on things like giant paintings of himself as some sort of savior figure and on replacing his face with that of a 1960s department store mannequin. (I’ll leave others to speculate about what else his millions bought.)

I know there is no such thing as a perfect hero anymore. The media won’t allow that. But I would think we would at least require of those we choose to honor some progression toward integrity rather than deterioration into insanity – one might add, a chosen deterioration into insanity.

This seems to be the particular argument in favor of cutting such a self-absorbed nutcase some slack: he had a rough childhood that made him feel ugly and insecure.

Sorry, Buddy. You want to see a rough childhood? Try the childhoods of some of the children of the Holocaust on for size. The significant difference here is that by some quirk of fate, these poor souls had to overcome their resultant fears and insecurities without the benefit of millions of dollars and constant ego-stroking. In any case, I know of few people who have had a truly happy childhood because we were all raised by flawed human beings who were also raised by flawed human beings who were raised by …well, you get the picture.

Humanitarian? Hmmm. Mother Teresa was a humanitarian; Michael Jackson arranged for tax deductions. He put in less time as a humanitarian than a lot of people in my own community and I doubt MSNBC is going to cover their funerals.

The true irony in all this – the ultimate punchline – is that, in the end, the city of Los Angeles is asking for donations to defray the cost of hosting the overblown spectacle that was supposed to be a memorial service, Jackson money being tied up in paying off all his debt.

Don’t you just hate it when the taxpayer is asked to foot the bill for these people who buy houses bigger than they can afford?

*Yes, I said “media whore.” If you don’t want to call attention to yourself, you don’t put on bright lipstick, you don’t walk around with a surgical mask on your face and you don’t dangle your kid off a balcony.

Speed Reading

Are you reading this? Good for you! It’s a dying art – or so it seems.

It is with a certain amount of sadness that I’ve watched the demise of long-standing newspapers of record this past spring. One of the papers for which I wrote printed its last issue two months ago. Another scaled its size and staff down considerably.

I can’t complain because I contributed to their economic troubles. Subscriptions were one of the first luxuries to go, since there are adequate online sources for news, most of them provided, in streamlined version, by the very paper that used to be delivered to the large puddle in my front driveway.

Naturally, the economy has been a big contributor to this phenomenon, but technology has also had an effect.

Frankly, though, USA Today and its fast-food approach to the news began the slippery slope to the small-bite approach to news writing so suitable for the internet.

Up until recently, the general public’s inability to focus on any prose longer than a few sentences or to do anything but skim a lengthy article was just a passing observation. As a collector of old books, I’ve noticed how larger print and thicker paper make some current hard cover novels appear more substantial than they actually are.

If A Tale of Two Cities was printed by today’s bestseller publishers, you’d need a wagon to tote it onto the subway. Not to worry – the only people still reading the Dickens classic are college lit students for whom nice, cheap paperback versions are available, if not those lovely yellow and black Cliffs Notes for those who like the idea of classic literature, but not the actual body of writing.

This disdain for more than a cursory reading became an urgent issue recently when I wrote about a governmental budgetary observation on my obscure little domestic blog.

Let me point out that visitors to my blog consist of my family and friends who have dropped by randomly and liked my point of view. Most random visitors are bored to tears by my fascination with cooking, knitting, birds and, of course, dogs. Every now and then, though, I deign to express an opinion.

In this case, it wasn’t even an opinion; it was more of an observation of the long-standing budgetary practice of “using up” (i.e., wasting) money at the end of a fiscal period. Within the scope of the entire budget the amount is usually chicken feed. But in most cases this “chicken feed” would support an entire family or two for a year – and that was the point of my post.

To illustrate this I had taken a picture of a group of government employees who were doing (or not doing, actually) what these particular governmental workers are anecdotally known for doing (or not doing) all over the country. But the reason they were doing (or not doing) this was because of this wonky budgetary system.

I’m not trying to be cryptic. I just don’t want to again go through what posting that picture and writing that post put us through that week. Within a day of that post going up, I had a local representative of that state agency on my doorstep; a gentleman who, I might add, had not read my blog.

I explained my position and he seemed satisfied with that, but apparently the news spread like wildfire throughout the agency. Pretty soon I was getting anonymous comments on my blog from local employees accusing me of the very opposite of what my post was stating.

When I’d redirect them to read the actual post, they’d back down grudgingly as if to say, “No one told me I’d have to actually read anything…” (Except for one hanger-on responding to the pictures who refused to do any reading and, as it turned out, was totally unrelated to any of the parties mentioned in the post; a person who, judging by his/her comments, probably has a close personal relationship with Mr. Daniels.)

I relate this only to illustrate that even 500 words was too much conscious reading for most of the visitors to my blog that day – most of whom had a stake in what I wrote.

My husband did not want me to bring up this incident again now that my blog’s back to normal. I assured him that he didn’t have to worry: there are no pictures here and my Spot-On columns range around 700 to 750 words. I’m guessing most readers gave up at the mention of A Tale of Two Cities.

Starving the Future

Shortly before my son’s high school graduation, our family’s attendance was required as yet another end-of-the-school-year awards “banquet.”

I put the word “banquet” in quotes merely because a banquet conjures visions of feasting and reveling, perhaps a boisterous song or two and maybe even serving wenches. It does not speak of green bean boiled gray in ham stock.

Anyway, humor me. The last – dinner – was the largest of the year. It lasted 2-1/2 hours and the lengthy tributes exceeded some Nobel Prize-winner speeches.

In terms of expense and attention, all other awards given at all other dinners paled in comparison.
In a perfect world – in other words, one where I am Empress of the Universe – a ceremony such as this would exist to award those who excelled at accomplishing the goals of the host institution. In other words, an establishment that exists to educate would, naturally, save its greatest accolades for those who best become educated.

Alas, no. The year-end awards banquets — academic and athletic — are ceremonies arranged for and paid by groups of parents. So the larger your group and the more support you can muster for the group, the bigger and better the tribute.

One would think academics would be the largest however, this particular lavish display was furnished by the school’s athletic boosters.

There were a few of us who qualified for attendance at both dinners. It is a strange circumstance that, in spite of my side of the family’s anti-social attitude, I happen to give birth to A Joiner. Heir 2 is up for anything and when someone came to him and said, “Hey, we really have a good time on the cross country team,” he was ready to sign up.

Turns out he was pretty good at it – enough to letter in it. But, as is our familial attitude, he’s not particularly competitive in the area of athletics. His desire to win did not extend to changing his diet or his wonky sleeping habits. So our annual invitation to attend the athletic banquet was always a bit of a surprise. We rarely attended, though, since Heir 2 didn’t know many of the other people there.

But this year was different. It was his last chance to attend the athletic dinner and we were all feeling a bit sentimental.

I’ve always been critical about school systems that focus on athletics at the expense of academics and, to be honest, our local school system is not as bad as the nightmare of a school system described in H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, where all school money and community focus goes to support high school football while the educational facilities and faculty fall into disrepair.

However, those of us who have come from other areas (“outsiders” or foreigners, as we’re called when we dare to express an opinion), are well aware of the school systems’ short-sighted ambitions for the students they graduate.

I couldn’t help wondering, as each athletic dinner award recipient returned to their seat with a trophy the size of the Stanley Cup, what sort of message was being sent by the booster parents, the school administrators and faculty in attendance and the system providing the facilities. “This is it. This is as good as it’s ever going to get. So here’s this big honkin’ trophy to remind you of your glory days that, upon graduation, are over.”

To be sure, when a few days later we read the program that accompanied the graduation ceremony, only around five students, out of a graduating class of over 140, were attending college outside the surrounding area.

The argument most often used by the booster parents for encouraging athletics (certainly in a school system that has an adequate phys ed requirement, not to mention a plethora of opportunities for area youth to engage in team sports), is the abundance of scholarship money. But there were no athletic scholarship recipients in Heir 2’s graduating class, other than the paltry amount doled out as local money. On a budget exceeding the $300,000 mark, the athletic boosters handed out an amount equal to the academic boosters, who operate on a substantially smaller budget and certainly less than was spent on the toddler-sized trophies.

“Well,” a friend of mine said, “the world needs laborers too.”

At first I recoiled at the smug, elitist connotation of what he’d said. But the world does need laborers and I’d be proud to have either of my sons become one if that is the work he chooses to do.

For many students in the community, though, that choice is hijacked by a community focused on its own entertainment instead of providing for their children a vision and a future.