R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out What It Means to Everyone

“Hello, Marvin,” I said, as I stepped to the front of the line at the polling place.

“Hello,” he said, looking puzzled. “Let’s see if I can remember your name.” He thought a minute.

“Janet,” I said. No light went on in his eyes. “Coburn,” I added.

“I know I must have seen you around somewhere.”

“Actually, no. I just read your name off your name tag and wanted to be friendly.”

“I forgot I was even wearing it,” he said.

* * *

My husband was working in the electronics department of the store. He saw a customer looking at the merchandise. She was apparently transexual, or in transition, or perhaps a transvestite.

“Hello,” Dan said, with a friendly expression on his face. “Is there something I can help you with?”

The woman seemed taken aback.

* * *

Dan also sees many customers from Arabic-speaking countries. He greets them the same way, then helps them as best he can, holding up items and doing his best at understanding heavily accented English.

Those customers always come back. Sometimes, late at night, they talk to Dan, compliment him on his full, lush beard, and introduce him to their friends.

* * *

I was walking through the university’s Student Union building, leaning on my cane. Tired, I tried to take a seat on a convenient chair, but missed my landing and fell to the floor.

Instantly, a group of young women appeared at my side, expertly hoisted me into the chair, and offered to get me juice or a hot, comforting beverage. (I was a bit shaky after my tumble.)

When I assured them I was fine, they returned to the juice bar or went off to class, with no fuss or fussing. It was a big deal to me, but seemed just another event to them.

* * *

Not so long ago, there was a vogue for “random acts of kindness” – helping unknown recipients by putting a coin in an expiring parking meter or paying for the next person in line at the toll booth. And these were indeed nice things to do. They did add a little kindness to the world. Largely, they were anonymous.

What I would like to see in the world, however, are random acts of respect – using a person’s name, waiting on all customers with an attentive expression and welcoming word, helping a fallen stranger.

In fact, these shouldn’t be random acts of respect. Ideally, they should be everyday occurrences, practiced by everyone. We know that’s not going to happen, or at least not anytime soon.

So for now, let’s concentrate on “random.” Just try it whenever you think about it, or once a day. Use a person’s name – even if it annoys you when a server tells you hers, don’t summon her by saying, “Hey, waitress!” Say “Thank you” to the baggage attendant that just lifted your 50-lb. suitcase, even if you’re furious that you had to pay extra for it. Smile and nod at the worker who cleans your hotel room as you pass her in the hall. Shake hands when you’re introduced to the young person with blue hair and sleeve tats.

Do it because it will surprise someone. Do it because it will make someone feel good. Do it because you’re a good person. Do it because your mother told you to be polite. Do it because it’s the only lift a person may get all day. Do it because the people you meet every day deserve respect and too often don’t get it. Do it because we’re all human beings, sharing the planet.

And say “thanks” or nod and smile when someone shows respect to you. You deserve it too. Then keep the chain going.

Practice won’t make perfect. But it will make better. Help. Greet. Smile. Thank. Look at someone when you talk to him. To quote a different song, “Little things mean a lot.”

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The Great Thanksgiving Ratatouille

One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.

John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.

Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.

So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.

Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.

He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.

Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.

I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)

Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.

“Ratatouille,” I would reply.

“What’s that?”

“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”

“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”

“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.

John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.

It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”

At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).

Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”

Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.

We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”

Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.

This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.

___

This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.

 

 

Hungry Children: A One-Act Play

Sharing food with the needy

[Setting: The Halls of Power]

Guy in Suit: The media keep saying that there are hungry children in America.

Other Guy in Suit: Let them eat dinner.

Bleeding-Heart: That’s the problem. They don’t have dinner to eat. Or even breakfast maybe.

GIS: We already give them lunch at school. That’s five days a week.

B-H: Unless they’re absent or on vacation or a snow day.

OGIS: Then it’s the parents’ problem.

GIS: Why do schoolchildren have so many vacations, anyway? We don’t get all those vacations.

B-H: Uh, yes you do.

GIS: Oh. Well, never mind that now. We were talking about tax cuts…uh, job creators…uh, feeding children. That was it.

OGIS: Suppose the media are right?

GIS: The media are never right unless we tell them what to say.

OGIS: Well, just suppose. For a minute. OK? The problem I see is that it looks good for us to feed poor, hungry, starving American children. By the way, are they as pitiful-looking as poor, starving foreign children?

GIS: Probably not. You were saying?

OGIS: If there are hungry children, and we do need to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without feeding the lousy, lazy, good-for-nothing moochers at the same time?

GIS: Ah, yes, the parents. If we give the parents anything, it should be one bag of rice and one bag of beans. And — hey — they could feed their kids that too.

B-H: But children need good nutrition — fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and enough to keep them full and healthy.

OGIS: Hey, we have plenty of minerals left over after fracking. Won’t those do?

B-H: No.

GIS: But if we give kids all that fancy food, what’s to keep the parents from eating it?

OGIS: Or selling it for booze or cigarettes or drugs?

GIS: Think about that! The drug dealers would be getting all the good nutrition. Then they could run faster from the police.

OGIS: We can’t have that, now can we?

B-H: But…the hungry children? Remember? Eating at most one meal a day, five days a week, when school is in session?

GIS: That’s plenty. I heard American children are obese, anyway. They could stand to lose a little weight.

[Curtain]

 

I thought it was time to revisit this post when my husband and I visited IHOP for their No Kid Hungry promotion, which raised money for www.nokidhungry.org. (You can donate at their website. I did. Besides buying all those pancakes.)

I was also reminded of a conversation I had with someone who works in the education sector. She was at a conference, talking with a group of teachers. One of them mentioned how many snow days they had that year and my friend responded, “Oh, boy! I bet the kids loved that!” There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the teachers spoke up. “On a snow day,” she said, “many kids don’t get to eat. The only real meal that they get is at school.”

My friend had never thought about that, and neither had I. We both came from times and places when there was always food in the fridge and a hot dinner on the table. Sometimes we forget that life isn’t like that for everyone.

In this election year, we’ll hear a lot about welfare and funding for schools and improvements in educational policy. Childhood hunger may not be mentioned, but it is intimately tied up with all those issues.

You can donate to local food banks and charities. You can work with nokidhungry.org. Or you can leave it up to the Guys in Suits, for whatever they think it’s worth.

Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess

Red heart, studded with apins isolated on a white background. 3d render

First, let me say that I read the Bloggess all the time. I have her books and I read them all the time too. But secretly I hate her, and here’s why.

1. She had a weirder childhood than I did. She lived in a small Texas town full of farm critters and wild animals, and weird characters, including her father the taxidermist, and has interesting poverty stories, like the one about the bread-sack shoes. I lived in a nondescript middle-class suburb with a stay-at-home mom and a dad that went to work every day smelling of Vitalis and Aqua Velva, rather than deer blood.

(This was also the problem I had trying to write country songs. You can’t get very far with “I was born an industrial engineering technician’s daughter/in the Central Baptist Hospital of Lexington, KY.”)

2. She had more interesting pets, with more interesting names than I did. She had a raccoon named Rambo that wore Jams and a delinquent turkey named Jenkins. Later she had a dog named Barnaby Jones Pickles and has cats named Ferris Mewler and Hunter S. Thomcat. We had dogs named Blackie and Bootsie and rabbits named Christina and Mittens. Our recent dogs have been Karma and Bridget, and the only eccentric cat names we’ve bestowed have been Django and Dushenka.

(Ordinarily, I don’t like cat names like Baryshnikat and F. Cat Fitzgerald. I think cat names should be something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to yell out the door if one of them wanders off, like Louise or Garcia. But I suppose the Bloggess’s neighbors are by now used to anything.)

3. She has more interesting disorders than I do. I have a bad back and bipolar disorder type 2 (and a blog about it, bipolarjan.wordpress.com). The Bloggess has generalized anxiety disorder, anti-phospholipid syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and, apparently, an obsession with chupacabras and vaginas. This gives her much more to write about. Although I do have two blogs. Two! In your face, Bloggess!

4. She’s less inhibited than I am. The Bloggess would have ended that last paragraph, “In your face, motherfucker!” I didn’t learn to cuss till I was in my 20s and no one I meet ever believes I swear until I do. Then they’re shocked. Also, I swear all the time, except in my blogs, where I’m afraid I’ll offend readers, all of whom I assume have tender sensibilities. The Bloggess knows her readers better than that.

5. She has way more readers than I do. And she’s published books and has another coming out. I have 495 followers and I think most of them want to sell me books on how to publicize my blog. I should probably study a book like that, but I’d rather read ones about emerging viruses, cloud cities on Venus, and mostly true memoirs. On the other hand, I have the distinction of being the only writer ever to have articles in both Catechist and Black Belt magazines. So take that, moth . . . Bloggess!

6. She and her husband have more interesting arguments than my husband and I do. We never even talk quietly about whether Jesus was a zombie.

7. She has a stronger voice than I do. I mean her writing voice. I had no idea what her speaking voice was like until I saw a video clip of her on the web, talking about vaginas. But when I’m going to write in my blogs, I have to lay off reading her for a day or two, because her voice takes over my weak, tiny mind and it wants to sound like her. I wish I could write like that. Or at least as well as that.jennyme

But, like the Bloggess, I am a strangeling. And that’s a start.

The Other Sex Talk

I’ve never had the “sex talk” that all people – both parents and children – seem to dread. I’m not a parent and when I was a child I received my technical understanding of reproduction from a health class film, which left a lot to the imagination, and the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, which filled in a lot of gaps that the health film skipped right over. (The film referred to a menstrual period as “the weeping of a disappointed uterus.” Ick.)

erotic education button on computer pc keyboard keyBut that’s not the sex talk I mean. This is the sex talk for consenting adults that hardly anyone has but everyone needs to. It’s divided into two sections: The Health Chat and the Pleasure Chat. It’s best to conduct these conversations when everyone is still clothed and not engaged in heavy breathing. I would recommend choosing a time and place not conducive to sex – a park, for example. Both parties need time to consider the discussion before deciding whether to proceed.

The Health Chat

The easier part of the health chat is discussing birth control/safe sex. What method does each partner typically use or prefer? Barrier methods? Hormonal? Does either person have an allergy to latex? These are things it’s better to know beforehand.

So far the health chat has been fairly smooth and non-threatening. Next comes the part that too many people skip because it’s just so uncomfortable to talk about: STDs. Herpes and HIV infections are the most serious, as there is no cure for either, and both carry enormous stigma. But those are the very reasons potential partners must talk about them. They’re not just potential surprises but possibly life-changing ones.

STDs can be a deal-breaker. Talking about them in advance can eliminate the possibility of a revelation at an inopportune moment and give the other person a chance to consider the risks, the seriousness, the forms of protection, do research, or even discuss the subject with a physician.

How do you do this delicate dance? Be forthright, but not panicky. “I know we’re both thinking about having sex, but I need to tell you something. I have a herpes infection.” Explain what you’re doing about it. “I’ve been on anti-virals for over a year and haven’t had an outbreak in that time. I always use condoms, even when I’m not having an outbreak.” Then back off. “I’m sure you’ll want to think about this, maybe learn some more about it, before we decide whether to go further. And that’s okay. If you decide not to, I respect your decision.” There, that takes what? Two minutes? Three? (Working yourself up to having the conversation may take a tad bit longer.) But ethically, it’s something you need to do.

It’s also legitimate to ask if your prospective partner habitually practices safe sex. “I didn’t use condoms with my last girlfriend, but she was a very nice woman” is not a good enough answer. That nice person’s last partner might at some point have had sex with a diseased goat. The point is, you just don’t know. The safe option then is for you both to get tested. I once advised  a friend who was in this situation of what his hero Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify.”

The Pleasure Chat

It can be best to check out with your partner what activities he or she finds enjoyable. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be very important. Again, it’s something you might want to discuss before you’re close to getting it on, to prevent knee-jerk reactions that might spoil an otherwise good time.

If both of you enjoy mainstream, middle-of-the road sex, that’s fine. But one or both of you may also like the more kinky side of things. Better to talk about it than be surprised when someone approaches an unexpected orifice or brings out an unfamiliar sex toy.

One saying in the kink community is that sex should be safe, sane, and consensual. It’s better to discuss the safety and sanity, and get the consent, before proceeding.

Also, discussing these matters beforehand gives you a chance to think seriously about what your boundaries are – what things you absolutely don’t want to do, what you might try once as an experiment, and what you’ve never done but have no objection to. You can also take time to ask yourself whether you are reacting automatically or have actually thought about the questions raised. Your instant instinct might be “Ew,” but on further reflection you might say, “I’ve never thought I’d like that, but if it gives my partner pleasure, maybe I could try it and see.” From these reflections can grow more varied – and more fulfilling – sex lives.

Talking about sex can be scary, or erotic, or sensible, or just plain necessary. One thing’s for sure. If you can’t have a sex talk with someone, you shouldn’t be having sex with that person.

 

(This is for my friend John and others who informed my thinking on these issues.)

 

An Arizona Ghost Town

My husband and I were vacationing in Arizona when we encountered a ghost town.

It wasn’t the ordinary sort of ghost town, neither the kind with re-created western storefronts and actors playing at gunfights and saloons that serve sarsaparilla nor the kind that are abandoned towns of the 1930s or 50s that sport  completely empty streets, dilapidated houses, decrepit main streets, and sand-filled parks and parking lots.desert road

This was something else again.

We were in Arizona for the silliest of reasons. We had decided to visit the small town of Benson, based entirely on the name of the theme song of the little-known sci-fi movie Dark Star. It’s a charming little country-and-western number on the topic of special relativity. Here’s the best recording of it I could find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2F0dHVZAm8

It turned out to be a swell vacation. Very relaxing. The nearest city of any size was Tucson, Benson was surrounded by scenic mountains, there were an excellent restaurant and a great diner (also a noted barbecue joint, but it was closed because the chef had cut himself), and not a great deal else.

But Benson was a good jumping-off point for assorted day trips. One of the best was to Kartchner Cavern (http://azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA/), which was the most accessible and best-preserved cave I’ve ever seen, but also a delight because the tour guide actually used the word “adit,” which is usually encountered only in crossword puzzles.

On this particular day we were visiting the copper-mining town of Bisbee. Noted for its historical significance and its artist-colony vibe, Bisbee was a delightful town to explore. There was a bicycle race going through town that day, which provided some very intriguing sights of the buff-guys-in-skintight-shorts variety. I also indulged my fondness for semiprecious stones. They are available all over the southeastern Arizona area, but Bisbee’s shops provided some of the most attractive examples. I bought an iolite bracelet at one. (A little bluer than amethyst, iolite is lovely set in silver http://www.minerals.net/gemstone/iolite_gemstone.aspx.)

At some point during our ramble around Bisbee, I had picked up a real estate paper, and read in it about a restaurant/bar/orchard for sale, complete with liquor, as the owners had abandoned it. It sounded unusual and interesting, and on the way out of town we passed what had to be the same property.

It inspired us. We started daydreaming about how we could buy the property with our friends Sandy and Hugh. Sandy and I could run the bar while Dan and Hugh tended the pecan orchard and baked pies. Or Dan and I could run the restaurant while Hugh and Sandy set up stables for boarding horses. Or we could all drink up the liquor and abandon the place as the previous owners had.

Our next destination that day was Chiricahua National Monument, a place of spectacular formations that looked like God had played Jenga with rocks. We were chatting and driving merrily along when I noticed the gas gauge. It was at zero. Not near zero. Not approaching zero. The needle was actually on the red line.

We looked at our map. Nothing. No thing. Not a thing between us and Chiricahua. Not even a symbol that indicated food, gas, and lodging.

Actually, there was something between us and Chiricahua. Miles and miles of nothing.

It’s pretty well known that when the needle hits the red line, there is still actually some small amount of gas left in the car. The thing is, you never know how much or how far it will take you. In our case, it looked like the rental car might take us just a little closer to Absolutely Nothing.

As couples will, Dan and I began to bicker. Who should have reminded whom to get gas on the way out of Bisbee? Would driving faster or slower conserve more fuel? Could we arrange to run out of gas on a downhill slope so the car would be easier to push? What were the odds of getting a cell phone signal? Why were we so stupid, and unlucky, and screwed?

Then, ahead in the not-too-distant distance, a smudge appeared on the horizon. As we crept nearer, the smudge resolved into a few lonely buildings. We both started humming the Twilight Zone theme.

It was a town. Not much of a town and not on the map, which still indicated that we were nowhere. But it was there, and it was a town with two buildings.

And one of them was a gas station. (The other was a post office, which I can’t imagine was very busy.) So we got gas and a couple of cold drinks and didn’t have to die of heatstroke walking forward to Chiricahua or back to Bisbee. We thanked the attendant (who was not Rod Serling) kindly and went on our way, letting the smudge of a town disappear in our rearview mirror.

I suppose I should have asked the clerk’s name, or the town’s name, but it never occurred to me to do so. We were simply awed and grateful and more than a little amazed.

And we decided that the moral of the story was this: It’s better to be smart, but if you can’t do that, it’s even better to be lucky.

 

 

 

Sometimes the Movie IS Better

Фильм (film). Концепция изменения выбора

It’s a truism that the book is better than the movie. And like all truisms, it’s not entirely true. In a few, rare cases, the movie is actually better than the book it is based on. Some films don’t just adequately portray a book. There are times when the film outshines the book.

Let me start by saying that The Hobbit was not improved by being made into a movie. It might have been okay if they had made it into one movie, but three movies? No. I have written about this before. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1n) Sleigh-bunnies. ::shudder::

That said, as I see it, there are two factors that can make a movie better than a book: length and depth.

Length. Most books are simply too long to translate exactly into movies. Most of the time this means that excellent – even necessary – material will be left out of the movie. The Lord of the Rings, for example, required three movies and still left out significant parts of the three books. I know there are people who still regret the loss of the Tom Bombadil and Goldberry scenes and I think that the Scouring of the Shire should certainly have been included.

Other books, however, have long stretches of text that do not translate well into evocative visuals or scintillating dialogue. Leaving them out can be a good thing. For example, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, is a long and complex book with lots to say about race, sociology, and economics. The movie (1968) trims out much of that content and focuses on the tender, evolving relationship between the two deaf-mutes and the young girl. The challenging intellectual and political content would pull attention away from the emotional center of the movie.

Gorky Park (1983) is another wonderful movie that has advantages over the book. Martin Cruz Smith’s novel has a long section in which Arkady languishes in a sanatorium, and it drags a bit. While this episode may be relevant to developing Arkady’s character, using it in the film would not improve the tempo of the movie, which after all is a murder mystery/thriller.

Depth. Occasionally a book, although it may have sold well, is emotionally flat. This could happen when a writer is inexperienced, or even too experienced –when he or she simply “phones it in.” The film version – if it has a good director, screenwriter, and/or outstanding actors – can take the story to a much higher level.

Twice I have had the experience of seeing a movie that I liked very much, then getting the book it was based on, only to be profoundly disappointed. One of these was the little-known spy-comedy Hopscotch (1980) which, although it sank without a trace, is a fun little film that has long been a favorite in our household. The novel was nothing special. The writing was uninspired, and the characters not well developed. All it really had was a plot. The movie, on the other hand, was vastly improved by the addition of Glenda Jackson’s character – who did not even appear in the book – and by the comedic range of Walter Matthau’s portrayal of the lead character. Or, as Rotten Tomatoes put it,

As written by Brian Garfield, Hopscotch was a conventionally serious espionage novel. As adapted for the big screen by Garfield and Bryan Forbes, Hopscotch is a lively exercise in cloak-and-dagger comedy, even when the pursuit of Matthau turns deadly towards the end.

The movie dialogue was wittier, the characters far more interesting, and the resolution more satisfying. I wish I had never read the book.

I had the same reaction with the movie and book of Three Days of the Condor (1975). (Actually, the book, written by James Grady, was Six Days of the Condor. That was part of the problem.) The movie compressed the action to heighten the tension and make the chase elements more compelling. At the same time, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway’s characters had more complex personalities and revealing interactions than the stick figures in the book. I would never recommend the book, but heartily recommend the movie. Sydney Pollack’s efforts as director are certainly a major contributing factor to the film’s superiority.

Admittedly, most of the time it is a mistake to try to translate good literature –or even simply entertaining stories – to film. Even now that CGI makes possible depictions of events and characters that would formerly have been disappointing at best or even impossible, some things are simply better left to the imagination.

Usually books are one of those things.

But not always.

How to Get Rid of a Possum

You’d think that getting rid of a possum (1) would not be that difficult, given that the possum was already dead. Really most sincerely dead. Not just playing possum, so to speak.

If the possum had still been alive, I could have called an exterminator or one of those more humane types with live traps, who let possums go in the wild, there, presumably, to frolic with like-minded possums, or whatever it is they do for fun.(2)

Exterminators, it seems, want to exterminate things, which requires that they be animate. Animal control people likewise need a live subject. Controlling a dead possum isn’t much of a challenge. I would have thought that a dead possum would provide a nice break from cranky squirrels or sewer alligators, but then what do I know about it?

Not much, and that’s a fact.

I certainly wasn’t going to bury the thing, an honor reserved for pet cats. There was no way I was going to cook it, however popular roadkill cuisine was getting.

Truthfully, it didn’t seem to be roadkill at all. It was lying at the bottom of the back steps, on a concrete pad, near the garage, which is where I assumed it had been hanging out before its demise.

My main goal was to get rid of the thing without actually touching it. I suppose I could have left it until my husband got home, but the mental image of the unlovely rodent becoming even unlovelier in the sun was simply too awful to contemplate.

I pondered a while. My first bright idea was to call the natural history museum. They had a small exhibit of local live fauna and surely must occasionally deal with dead fauna.

They were less than helpful. There was nothing they could do, the gentleman said.

“I’m concerned that it could be a health hazard,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “The possum is a very primitive species. It isn’t likely to have anything that’s contagious to humans.”

“That wasn’t my concern,” I retorted. “I assume that rotting meat, of however primitive a species, is a health hazard.”

He said he was sorry and hung up.

I pondered some more.

I tried animal control. Here was this animal, and I was beginning to lose control.

Turns out they only deal with live animals. Possums are barely live animals even on their most animated days. No go.

Still with the pondering.

Then I had a bright idea. There are guys (and, presumably, gals) whose job it is to remove roadkill from our streets and highways. Dead Animal Pick-Up Specialists or something like that.(3) I managed to find them in the phone book. I figured that a concrete deck by the driveway was sort of like a street.

But not enough like one, apparently. The kind lady who answered the phone informed me that the dead animal in question had to be actually in the street. Or at least by the curb.

“Are you telling me,” I asked, “that my dead animal will not be picked up unless I put it by the curb? Are you telling me that I should pick up this dead possum, place it by the curb, and then call back?”

Uncomfortably, she replied, “Well, no. I’m not exactly telling you that….”

But we both knew that she was unofficially handing me the answer to my problem. I was going to have to face my fears, or at least my nausea, and move the possum.

The only way I could do this without actually touching the possum (one of my life goals) was to pick it up with a shovel and cautiously make my way to the curb, hoping that the possum didn’t slip off the shovel and none of the neighbors saw me. I dumped it rather unceremoniously over the edge of the curb and tipped it into the street proper.

Then I called the same lady as before and reported A Dead Possum In The Street In Front Of My House. Before the end of the day the Dead Critter Wranglers (or whoever) made it vanish.

I was happy.

Except for one thing. Now I had a shovel contaminated with essence of dead possum. The only solution I could come up with was to douse the shovel with lighter fluid and give it a quick whoosh with a match.(4)

So that is what I did. Then I went inside and raised a toast to the valiant city workers who deal with this sort of thing every day. Better them than me.

(1) I know, I know. Opossum. But where I am from it was spelled possum and pronounced possum. Thus Kentucky heritage wins over Ivy League education, at least for once.

(2) Or I could have trapped it myself by putting something irresistibly yummy at the bottom of a trash can (or a live trap, which I don’t have). Google recommends apple, carrot, or kiwifruit, but really almost anything will do. Possums are not picky eaters. But then I’d have a live, annoyed possum, which would not be an improvement.

(3) One place was called Critter Control. I guess that means if it’s alive it’s an animal, but if it’s dead, it’s a critter.  I didn’t see a listing for Varmint Control, but that’s probably because I’m not in Kentucky any more.

(4) Germs dead. Mission accomplished. No messy evidence.

Memories for Sale

What cretin thought “Try a Little Tenderness” would be a good theme song for toilet paper?

What ad agency madman imagined that “Human” – a song about infidelity and confession and forgiveness – would be just peachy for an insurance company commercial featuring an air conditioner dropped on a car?

There are too many examples to list here: Quaker Oats “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”; Fiber One “Total Eclipse of the Heart”; Yoplait “All Day and All of the Night.”

I’ll tell you who thinks these up. Young people.

They count on their targeted demographic being too young to remember the songs as a part of their life, one that brings backs memories and feelings and events. High school. First love. First sex. Who cares if the lyrics don’t match the product? If a single word from the title remotely relates to the product, or the melody is pretty or energizing or attention-grabbing, that’s fine.

It was bad enough when all you had to fear was hearing The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” or “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” strangled with strings while you were riding an elevator or shopping for groceries. (Yes, that was me gagging in the elevator.) But now even the songs of the 80s are “oldies” and considered fair game. The pitches invade every home that has a TV or computer. Which means pretty much everyone except the Amish.

I know that past a certain date the songs are public domain and the writers/singers get no royalties. I know that even if the company does have to pay royalties, they are but the tiniest drop in the bucket labeled “marketing expenses.” I know that sex – the underlying content of most popular songs – sells.

But what they’re selling are my memories and yours. Try to pick your favorite from the days when you related strongly to a song. Then imagine that singer going door to door peddling something. Gordon Lightfoot selling encyclopedias. Janet Jackson selling make-up. Hootie and the Blowfish selling patio awnings. Pink selling food storage devices.

You can’t. For one thing, no one sells door-to-door anymore except those guys that sell questionable steaks. Many people order everything from underwear to financial advice over the Internet. But you get the idea.

Of course the youngsters’ uppance will come. Years from now they will hear Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj or Fall Out Boy being used to hawk hoverboards or maple bacon vodka or tampons. And they will cringe. Deservedly. And the ghosts of their elders will rub their wizened hands and cackle with glee.

Until that time, however, when faced with The Who’s “Who Are You?,” the only answer is, apparently, “I’m a shoe.”

 

C’mon. Share the outrage. What slices of your life have been trivialized by advertising? What memories have been reduced to background noise or crass commercialism? What songs would you like to take back from the hucksters and reclaim as the soundtrack to your life?

The Education Argument

When any system grows too big, it begins to break down. This is evidenced all around us. The education system, various systems of religion, the healthcare system, the justice system, the banking system, the insurance system – all are too big to operate efficiently or effectively. Entropy and inertia win.

Let’s take the education system, because it’s the one I know best. I have taught at the college level, worked on magazines for teachers at all levels, and written and edited scripts for training videos intended to help school staff members from grades K through college.

Where to begin? Let’s start with curriculum. There is currently a great debate about what America’s children will learn. The pressure on textbook publishers to deliver something that can be approved by one or more states increases every day. Texas and California, the largest textbook buyers, have an outsized influence on what the rest of the nation’s school children will learn.

One major problem is that no one can agree on what the nation’s children should learn. Any attempt to standardize curriculum is shouted down from various directions. (Can you say “Common Core”?) Should we present a positive history of our country or one that discusses its missteps and flaws? Should we teach the facts of science or “teach the controversy.” (Or both?) Should we teach using whole language or phonics? Should we teach computer programming to everyone or just a few? Should we teach civics at all and if so from what perspective – left, center, middle, all of the above? (When I was in high school I took a course called Comparative Political Isms. Such a course could likely not be taught today in an American high school, but if it were at least citizens would understand the difference between fascism and socialism.)

Various attempts have been made to rectify these problems, but all they seem to lead to are more and more standardized tests. The teachers of necessity teach children what will appear on the test – what answers they should fill into the little bubbles and how to construct a three-paragraph essay.

Other subjects are much harder to test. Reading comprehension is nearly impossible when stories must be so bland that any student anywhere with any background can understand every word of the story. Try writing a story like that (I have) and you’ll end up with nonsense – and not the good, Lewis Carroll kind.

While larger systems are seldom the answer – indeed they are usually the problem – there is a lot to be said for standardized curriculum rather than standardized tests. In order for students to enter higher education and even business on a level playing field, it helps if all the graduates have a grasp of the same basic information. Since every state seems to have its own take on history, health, civics – even math and science – students are coming out of high school with wildly different ideas and significant gaps in their learning. When they get to college there’s no telling whether they will have an understanding of geology or American history or how to spot fallacies in an argument.

If states and local communities want to add to a basic curriculum, by exploring the history of their particular state or community, that’s just fine. Although with the way people move around from job to job these days, it seems a little odd that a child must learn about the history of Ohio when he or she is going to be living in Alaska.

Another worrying aspect of today’s schools is their switch from the agricultural model to the business model. It has for quite a while been evident that the agricultural model is no longer effective for schools. The business model is better in the respect as it allows for year-round schools and longer school days to mimic the environment that students will enter after they leave school.

However, there is more to life than business. Along the way art, music, physical education, and such frivolous amenities have been neglected dropped or ignored. Even recess for elementary students has become a casualty of the work ethic.

Entrepreneurship classes and STEM teaching are all very well, but not all students are going to become business and scientific leaders. The country also needs janitors, fry cooks, receptionists, and convalescent home caregivers who can balance a checkbook, read a newspaper, and understand our system of government. And where will we find the artists, the poets, the musicians, the writers, sculptors, woodworkers, and the craftspeople who provide us unique and spirit-uplifting experiences that can be found in no cubicle farm?

At this point you may well ask whether I have any solutions to offer. I have a few.

  1. Read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. It’s every bit as true today as it was in 1991, when it was written. Then after you’ve read it, work to change the ridiculous system of funding K-12 education.
  2. Have a little faith in teachers. English teachers do not assign readings in hopes of changing a child’s religion or traumatizing them with challenging topics. Teachers cannot be expected to give everyone As. They are not the problem. Bad teachers are often the result of a flawed system and good teachers often leave the field, frustrated and disheartened. And they don’t make great money, despite what you may have heard.
  3. Remember that athletics, while important, are not the reason schools exist. Getting into a power-house college with an exceptional sports record is not the best preparation for life. Even pro athletes need to be able to do something else after their sports careers are over.
  4. Spend money on school infrastructure, including computers, up-to-date textbooks, and adequate supplies. No money? See point 1, above.
  5. Make sure children are ready to learn. Educational preschool programs and affordable or free breakfasts and lunches will go a long way. No money? See point 1, above.

Our present system of education is too complicated, with every state, county, district, and city having a say about funding, curriculum, expenditures, and more. Simplify governance, establish a basic curriculum, and revamp the funding system and you will still have a large system, but a streamlined one better able to meet the needs of students.

Even if you don’t agree with one – or all – of the above points, please take them as intended: food for thought and debate. After all, thought and debate are important skills, too.