Monday, January 25, 2010

"Handwriting Without Tears"

My wife tells me that in the NYC public school system, they use a text book entitled "Handwriting Without Tears", the implication being that the old way of teaching kids to write script in school was so painful that it could actually cause them to cry. Excuse me! What are these kids made of that learning to write can actually cause them to get so upset? There are children in the world who are forced to eat what they can find in the streets, and don't know what terrors the night will bring. They are entitled to cry, but learning handwriting?

Some parents are so afraid their kids will be exposed in life to things that are hard. What they seem to forget is that striving to overcome things that may be initially difficult, for them, and finally succeeding, teaches perseverance, and builds the toughness that will give them the grit to face the hard things in life. I'm not against helping kids when they really need it, it's just that if we constantly hover over them and try to smooth out all the speed bumps, how will they ever learn to cope on their own?

I can remember learning to write in grade school. (You might be tempted to make a smart remark like: Sure Jim, but back then there were only 18 letters in the alphabet, but I would just ignore it.) We had the added disadvantage of having to use a blue, plastic quill pen dipped in ink. We wrote on paper whose quality was so poor that you could see small pieces of wood in it. As the pen scratched across the raggedy paper, the ink would rapidly be absorbed and start to smear in a spidery line. We used a blotter, a square of special paper designed to dry the wet ink, before it ran. Later the fountain pen came into use and we rejoiced, although a cheaply made fountain pen would leak, leaving a blue splotch on the pocket of your white school shirt.

Penmanship lessons probably started as early as first grade with the cranky Miss Langin doing the teaching. I think it was called "cursive writing", and the Palmer Method was its bible. We did exercises like making "loops and whorls" to get the feel of how script writing flows. We also made straight slash marks to practice slanting our writing, The slant they wanted us to learn favored right-handed kids, and leftys had a bit of a hard time, but I don't remember anybody stepping out onto the window ledge over it.

Then we moved on to practice sheets where they had pages of alphabet letters in script style lightly outlined, and we would trace over them. We did this every day until we were able to do it easily on a blank sheet. There were rectangular, green and white cards mounted around the classroom, with the upper and lower case versions of every letter of the alphabet written in beautiful Palmer script. Probably by second grade, every kid was proficient at writing script. Did some of us struggle? Sure, but we didn't whine about it. Parents didn't come running to school to castigate the teachers like they do today. Eventually, everybody GOT it, and even as we grow older, what better feeling is there, after having struggled with something, then to finally get it and enjoy that AHA moment.

Whether it's penmanship, sinking a free throw, balancing a checkbook, mastering another language, or just developing a golf swing that works, learning is one of the most satisfying experiences in life. We shouldn't be so anxious to rush in and do things for our kids just because we get frustrated at their rate of progress. It's hard sometimes to hang back, but in the long run, the learning will be more lasting, and certainly more gratifying for the kids when they get it on their own.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Nightclub Scene

Last night we saw Tony Bennet bring the house down at the St. George Theater with a cabaret-style performance of his classic songs. Both Tony (at age 83) and the songs were as contemporary today as they were 60 years ago when he first started singing them. We last saw Tony in the sixties at a venue I don't recall, but listening to him sing reminded me of a time when songs had melodies you could hum, and lyrics were so good that you remembered them decades after they were popular. It also reminded me of the days when night clubs ruled the New York entertainment scene. These clubs ranged from elegant to divey, but they provided the stages where many top name entertainers strutted their stuff.

Unlike today when people go out looking like bums (a guy in front of us last night wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the proud slogan: "Vinny's Pest Control"), people who frequented the night spots of the fifties and sixties dressed to the nines. Ladies always wore dresses or even gowns, and men wore suits and ties, or tuxes at the better places. They wouldn't let you in if you weren't dressed properly, and kept spare jackets and neckties for patrons who needed them. The better clubs pulled in top talent and were hard to get into. Shows featuring the likes of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Buddy Hackett and other marquee names sold out. The environment was fun and the hard liquor flowed freely. Requests for a Cabernet or Merlot would be greeted with puzzled looks. Scantily dressed girls selling cigars and cigarettes circulated around the smoky room.

Upper Manhattan was home to the classier establishments like the Copacabana, El Morocco, Birdland, The Latin Quarter and the Stork Club. A hit appearance at one of these venues could launch a young performer's career like a rocket. Critics and powerful newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan frequented these rooms and could make or break you with a column the next day. Those lucky enough to score a table at one of the premier clubs could expect to see celebrities who showed up to see other celebrities perform. On a really good night, you might see some byplay between performers on stage and those in the audience, and occasionally an impromptu duet.

The edgier clubs were down in Greenwich Village. These were not as elegant as the uptown spots, but easier to get into. They afforded opportunities to catch someone whose career was on the way up, and at prices you could still afford. Jazz clubs were big in the Village...places like the Blue Note, the Village Vanguard, the Bitter End, the Village Gate and the Hungry Eye featured performers like Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Many comics who are now legendary got their start in the Village...Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and Woody Allen. Celebrities from uptown would often come "slumming" downtown to let their hair down. Despite the "Hippie" overtones, it was a fun and exciting place.

New York's outer boroughs and Long Island too, though no match for Manhattan, boasted their share of quality clubs that began to attract name entertainers. The Town and Country Club on Flatbush Avenue was one of the best. It was a big place (3,000 seats) compared to Manhattan clubs, with a big parking lot, a major plus for dates. They easily filled the joint when the big attractions were on the bill, and they were also a favorite venue for prom dates. Pimply faced guys in rented white tuxes, and beautiful young girls in gowns with towering beehive hairdos could be seen streaming in on warm June evenings. Other big-time Brooklyn clubs were the Elegante on Ocean Parkway and the 802 Club on 64th Street in Bay Ridge. In Long Island there was a great club with the unlikely name of San Su San where I saw a young Jerry Vale, and the Lakeside Manor in Douglaston.

It's sad that these great places are now gone. A change in American musical tastes and the advent of television were mainly responsible for driving most big name nightclub entertainers to places like Las Vegas where cabaret-style entertainment still thrives. Watching Tony Bennet last night was like peeling away the years. If I closed my eyes, I was twenty-five again, resplendent in a grey sharkskin suit, a lit Marlboro in my hand and a Jack Daniels on the rocks in front of me, and Tony was belting out "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" from the stage of a smoke-filled nightclub. I love my life and my family as things are today, but when I'm feeling a little old and creaky, its nice to think back and know that I had my share of hot times. I have to go take a nap now.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Childhood Heroes

Growing up in the forties and fifties, there was no lack of people after whom a boy could model himself. America was in the midst of the post WWII boom, and it seemed like the sky was the limit. Military men like Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur brought us victory over the hated Axis powers, and drew the admiration of young boys everywhere. Science and medicine were breaking new frontiers, from the exciting, like early space exploration, to the mundane such as the invention of Saran Wrap . There were sports heroes galore: Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Bob Cousy and Rocky Marciano. Television was ushering the American cowboy into our living rooms, and Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy competed for viewers and sponsors. I guess in my pre-teen years, I began to have a growing awareness of the men I most admired.

I didn't know a lot about politics, but the more I read about President Harry Truman, the more I liked him. Truman, a Democrat (when they still had a clue) was in office from 1945 to 1953. A no-nonsense man with the common touch, Truman was appointed to fill the third term of Franklin Roosevelt who died in 1945. He then confounded his critics with a startling upset of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, despite the newspapers printing premature headlines to the contrary. Truman made one of the most difficult decisions ever faced by an American President when he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. This act hastened the end of World War II and saved countless lives on both sides. There was an openness and honesty in Truman, mistaken by some as naivete, but those who underestimated him soon learned of the keenness of his mind and the strength of his will. The Democrat Party could sure use Harry today.

Speaking of Franklin Roosevelt, he contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39. While his illness was well known during his Presidential terms, how debilitated he was due to his illness was kept from public view through the cooperation of the press, something that would never be possible today. Polio, rarely seen in modern times, was still a serious illness when I was growing up. It was stopped in its tracks by the brilliant researcher, Dr. Jonas Salk. While working at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Salk saw an opportunity to develop a vaccine against polio, and devoted himself to this work for the next eight years. Salk's vaccine was composed of "killed" polio virus, which retained the ability to immunize without running the risk of infecting the patient. In countries where Salk's vaccine has remained in use, the disease has been virtually eradicated.

I was a sports fanatic as a kid, especially baseball. As a New York Yankee fan, I naturally gravitated to their players when looking for someone to look up to. My sports idol was Joltin' Joe Dimaggio, a phenomenon who quietly went about his business of hitting, fielding and running the bases like no other Yankee before, and maybe since. Joe's quiet manner and modest demeanor showed me the true meaning of sportsmanship. His personality changed later in life. The failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe broke him as a man. He had a half-dozen red roses delivered three times a week to her grave for 20 years after her death. I read where he became very cold toward his fans, and finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1999. I prefer to remember Joe as I saw him as a boy, incredibly talented, shy, and the quintessential Yankee who did it all, without steroids.

Finally, there was the Lone Ranger. No other western star on radio or TV impressed me like that masked man. He, like Dimaggio, possessed that quality of modesty I so admire, never hanging around to accept the thanks of the grateful townspeople he helped. He would press a silver bullet into their hands to remember him by, and ride off into the sunset with his faithful Indian companion Tonto. The Lone Ranger never drew his gun unless drawn on, never killed a man, but always wounded them instead, and never had much to do with women folk, not for lack of opportunity. He stood for truth, justice and the American way. And then there was that unforgetable theme song for the show, the William Tell Overture. I'm sure when Rossini wrote that great piece of music, he had no idea that more people would hear it listening to the Lone Ranger than in concert halls.
In retrospect, I know now that the real heroes in my life were my parents who taught me by their example, my teachers who stirred a love of learning in me, and later in life, my wife who, in spite of my many shortcomings, continues to love and support me. One of the many qualities I admire in her, as I did in my childhood heroes, is her quiet modesty.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book "Em Danno

Those of you under 50 probably can't relate to the title of this post. Allow me to explain. There was a TV cop show called "Hawaii Five-O" that ran from the late Sixties to around 1980, and the star, Jack Lord, would end many episodes by saying to his younger sidekick, Detective Danny Williams, as they were about to arrest the bad guy: "Book 'em Danno". Attitudes toward cops have changed in the past twenty years, with headline media frenzies every time a cop goes bad. Back in the day, cops were respected, or at least feared. If a cop spoke to your father about something wrong you had done, woe to you. Today the parent would sue the cop for traumatizing their baby.

Anyhow, it was a healthy respect for law and order that led to my early career on the school safety patrol. From the fifth grade on at Our Lady of Lourdes, boys were eligible to join the school safety patrol. (Sorry ladies, this work was just too dangerous for girls.) The standards for acceptance were high. Applicants needed to have a good record scholastically and behaviorally before pinning on the silver badge. This was probably a mistake when you think about it. They should have put the less bright, more troublesome kids out there to dodge traffic, so that if one got taken out, the local gene pool wouldn't suffer too much. But I digress.

There was a pecking order in the ranks of the safety patrol. New members with no rank wore plain silver badges, while more experienced Sergeants wore badges with a green background. The next rank up was Lieutenant, whose badges bore a bright red background, signifying they were men of action. Finally, there was the Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the safety patrol, the Captain. There was only one Captain, and his badge background color was a regal blue. Badges were worn on a white canvass harness that draped diagonally across the chest from shoulder to waist and clipped behind the back. It's no secret that safety patrol members, especially those holding higher ranks, were chick magnets. Oh yeah.

The duties of the safety patrol consisted mainly of standing in the intersections near the school and helping young kids cross the street. These assignments were handed out at a morning meeting and referred to in military terminology as "posts". Less experienced troops were placed on quiet posts like DeSales Place where they could learn the ropes. Veteran eighth graders were assigned to busy streets like Broadway or Bushwick Avenue where they confidently took matters in hand under the admiring eyes of blossoming eighth grade girls. At the end of a shift, the Lieutenants would make their rounds, even stopping to assist a newbie as required. When the shift was over, every safety patrol member removed their canvass harness and rolled it up the way they taught us in boot camp, so that the badge came out on top.

Besides helping little kids, safety patrol members also walked old ladies across the street whether they asked for help or not. We were also instructed to help teachers cross, a service I'm sure they really appreciated, as if they were too frail to make it on their own. This act of kindness was callously forgotten later in the day when that same teacher got her revenge by repeatedly whacking that brave safety partoller on his outstretched hand if he forgot why God made him. ("God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and the next."). Catholic schools used a simple method to teach...stark terror. I can still recite my Baltimore Catechism even though I occasionally forget my wedding anniversary.

I'm proud to say that through hard work and dumb luck, I rose to the rank of Captain. It was an unforgettable day indeed when Brother Jude, who ran the safety patrol, spoke those memorable words to me: "McAvoy graduated, you're Captain". The mantle rested heavily on my shoulders. How could these fifth graders be expected to handle a "219" ...kid crossing against the light! A lot of them just want to cut and run, but it's my job to get them to stop that green Chevy so little Tommy can make it safely to the sidewalk. I must confess, as I made my rounds and saw those young, plain silver badge-wearing kids dragging little old ladies across the intersection, that I got a lump in my throat. By God, they were going to be all right. Book 'em Danno.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Do You Feel Like Doing, Marty?

I was never a big Ernest Borgnine fan, partly because of the way he smacked poor Frank Sinatra around in "From Here to Eternity", but he was perfect for the role of Marty in the movie of the same name. Marty was based on a TV play by Paddy Chayefsky that originally ran on "Philco-Goodyear Playhouse". Borgnine played a lonely butcher who lives with his mother in the Bronx. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Marty is sitting around a neighborhood cafe with his friends trying to come with something interesting to do apart from their very familiar daily routine. His buddy Angie says: What do you feel like doing tonight? Marty: I don't know, Ange. What do you feel like doing? This scenario was so familiar because my friends and I spent many evenings on the stoop repeating these same lines.

Money was usually short in the days before we all had steady jobs. If we were really desperate, we would pool our money to pay for enough gas for a joyride, assuming one of the older guys could con his father into lending him the car. One of our favorite destinations was Idlewild (now Kennedy) airport, where we would park and just walk around the terminal. This was in the days when the Department of Homeland Security was way off in the future, and you were free to go pretty much anywhere, including down to the departure and arrival gates. Airline terminals were primitive then compared to the marble and glass affairs they have become. To get on the propeller-driven airplanes, you actually walked down on to the tarmac, and up a flight of steps to board.

Summertime was ideal for low-cost evenings. We often drove to Cross Bay Boulevard on the road to Howard Beach, where they had a recreational complex. It included a hot dog and burger joint called The Big Bow Wow, a miniature golf course, and a row of batting cages. Miniature golf was for date nights, but if we were stag, we headed straight for the batting cages. For a quarter, you could step into the cage and, using a metal bat, hit yellow, rubber-covered baseballs thrown by a pitching machine into the night sky. You could set the speed of the pitching machines, and being macho men, we always chose the fastest setting. While one guy was in the cage, the rest of us would gather behind the fence making humiliating remarks if the batter whiffed.

Another cheap night was going to the "Confraternity" dances sponsored by St. Fortunata's Church on Linden Boulevard. Many Catholic parishes held these dances, but for some reason, St. Fortunata's became the Copa Cabana of church dances. They were well-attended affairs, with girls in hip-hugging, brightly colored dresses and beehive hairdos, and guys in pegged pants and hair slicked back with Wildroot Creme Oil. Moreover, they attracted name bands, especially Latino groups headed by big names like Tito Puente. Contrary to what was shown in Saturday Night Fever, most guys couldn't dance like John Travolta, we were just desperate to meet girls.

If we didn't even have gas money, it was the stoop for us. We always sat on Tommy Dowd's stoop because it was on the corner near Rockaway Avenue, and we could see the people getting off the bus or exiting the subway station. We would either ridicule them or, if they were pretty girls, we would holler out can't miss pick-up lines like "Hey, marry me baby". If one of these young ladies ever came over (none ever did) we would probably have blushed a deep red before going into our Ralph Kramden impression ... hamina, hamina, hamina. We were harmless, and after a night of this merriment, we'd go into Tommy's house where his lovely Mom Lillian would give us tea and raisin bread toast. Very civilized.

Ernest Borgnine as Marty resonated with us because our lives paralleled Marty's. There was no e-Harmony, Facebook, MySpace, or other "dot com" social networks. Many of us attended all boys or all girls high schools, and had little opportunity to meet or socialize with the opposite sex. We stumbled through social interactions much like Marty until, if we were lucky, we met Miss or Mister Right. Sometimes I look around and it seems like young people today are so much more socially aware than we were. Of course the bad news is that you can no longer just send your daughter off to a dance secure in the knowledge that she will make it safely home. All in all, and no surprise here, I'll take the old ways.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"You Can Never Go Home"

Today someone sent me a wonderful clip from YouTube featuring movie director Martin Scorsese YouTube - Martin Scorsese's "The Neighborhood" visiting his old neighborhood in Little Italy. Marty went back to see how things were on his old block, and to show his young daughter where he came from. Some things hadn't changed like the butcher shop his family shopped in. Clearly some of the people he grew up with were still there and delighted in traveling with him down memory lane. He visited an Italian cheese store that has been there for 75 years and still operated by the same family. The current proprietor made an interesting comment; he said people ask him why he opened an Italian cheese store in the middle of Chinatown. And that's the point of this blog...sadly, neighborhoods change.

People my age remember what neighborhoods were like. In the days before the great exodus to the suburbs, people, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants, lived in tight communities a few city blocks square. Every borough of New York City had unique neighborhoods, many with a distinct ethnic or racial flavor, as people from other countries entered the United States and were drawn to areas where people looked like them and spoke their language. Brooklyn was no different. One in seven Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn, a fact that I find fascinating. We lived in East New York, but were surrounded by Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, Downtown Brooklyn, Cypress Hills, Park Slope, Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and dozens of others.

Neighborhoods were very protective of their own. Eyes were everywhere, watching you from windows and reporting back to your parents if you stepped over the line. Strangers were eyed with suspicion, especially if they were "different". I got a kick out of Scorsese's comment that his parents' families were from different towns in Sicily. In Italy it was unlikely that anyone married outside their town since travel was very restricted, but as immigrants moved into different tenement buildings in Little Italy, inter-marriage between different Sicilian towns began, an event, as Scorsese describes it, that required a "major sitdown". You can imagine the consternation when my cousin married an Irishman. Her parents must have offered up countless prayers that this "infamnia" would be forgiven by the clan.

Every neighborhood had its schools, churches, stores and parks. If you lived in East New York, you attended the local school. This was in the days when the idiotic practice of busing kids twenty miles to school had yet to be implemented. The idea was to give NYC kids a chance to attend other than area schools for racial balance, After spending billions, the practice is recognized as a colossal failure. We also attended the local church of our faith. I used to love standing outside the storefront churches on Fulton Street attended mostly by blacks. The thumping gospel music and shouts of the congregation came blaring out the doorway. Their service sounded like a hell of a lot more fun than ours.

Your friends lived mostly within a two block radius from you. Cliques of five or six guys were common, but the numbers expanded when it came time to choose up sides for ball games. As we got older, and girls started to enter the picture, things got a bit complicated. Some guys got girlfriends, and a whole new social dynamic began. Girls were always around, but mainly to tease and throw snowballs at; nobody ever thought of them as people worthy of companionship. When guys in the clique started getting married, we were all in each other's wedding party. This was such a happy time with weddings coming at frequent intervals. I still keep in touch with two great friends from those days, and recently made contact with a new friend Joe who lived around the block from me. Sadly some are no longer with us, but I remember them with great affection.

A while ago I visited my old block in Brooklyn. My house on Somers Street and some of the familiar buildings were still there, but clearly the neighborhood had changed dramatically. Unlike Martin Scorsese, I found nobody I remembered, or who remembered me. There were no heads sticking out the windows, no kids playing stick ball in the street, no cop on the beat to help steer kids clear of trouble, and no little old man selling his hot knishes from a push cart. The school yard was quiet, no old men played Brisk on the stoop, no trucks lined up to deliver to Spinners Super Market, and no skinny guys in dungarees and tee shirts with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, combing their duck-tailed haircuts in the reflection of Louie's Candy Store window.

My East New York is gone, but it lives in my memory. If you've never lived in a neighborhood, it's hard to understand what it was like. I try, along with my friend Joe, who also writes of his days in the hood, DelBloggolo to give you a little glimpse once in a while.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Price of Progress

Ever wonder how much easier we have it today compared to fifty years ago? Technology has truly revolutionized the way we live, not only from the standpoint of big changes like space travel and giant leaps in medicine, but in the everyday things that affect us all. Let's take a stroll around the house to see how much life has changed.

Making a cup of coffee used to require a percolator pot, ground coffee placed in a nest (we used to get our coffee ground fresh at the A&P) and water, all heated on a stove until the water flowed through the coffee in the nest enough times to give it some taste...probably a 15-20 minute process. We now have sitting on our kitchen counter a Keurig Coffee Maker that looks like a tiny juke box. You insert a coffee "pod" that comes in many varieties including decaffeinated, push the button, and a delicious cup of brewed coffee is ready to drink. For Christmas our kids gave us a slightly sleeker version of this wondrous machine for making espresso. I resisted buying this machine on the grounds (no pun intended) that it was an extravagant waste of money. You'd have to fight me now to get it back.

Not too many people remember the old record players (we called them "Victrolas") and the 78 RPM vinyl records they played, one at a time. Then came the bigger vinyl records that played at 33 1/3 RPM and could be stacked on a record changer to play several at once. Every living room had a stereo system or "hi-fi" the size of a Buick Roadmaster on which to play their records. Rapidly changing technology brought us 8-track tapes, then cassette tapes, then CDs. Now we listen to our downloaded music on an I-pod the size of a pack of cigarettes. I still have stacks of vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs that clutter up my house. Maybe I can donate them to the Amish.

While we're in the living room, take a look at that 52 inch plasma TV and appreciate the long journey television has made. In the fifties we had black and white TVs that got a few channels, and then only if you moved the antenna (or "aerial" as my father called it) until the picture appeared through the snowy static. You watched what was on when it was on. Then came color TV with remote controls, and in the seventies the VCR (celestial music here). Now you could tape a show and watch at your convenience. Finally came cable TV where there are now hundreds of channels with nothing worth watching instead of just a few. VCR/VHS tapes were replaced by DVDs and the ability to record from your cable box. This latter innovation is a great convenience; if we get nuked and can't leave the house for five years, I have enough old movies recorded to get me through.

Let's move on to the bathroom. This used to be a very functional place where maybe the only luxury was a copy of the Sears catalog to read while taking care of business. We never even had a tub, just a stall shower with such lousy water pressure that only gravity allowed it to work at all. Our bathroom was adjacent to a large, unheated pantry attached to the house, so nobody lingered in there for fear of hypothermia. Today, bathrooms are showplaces of marble tile and gleaming metal. Over sized tubs with Jacuzzis, mood lighting, electric tooth brushes and water pics, fluffy, pastel colored towels, and enough assorted bath soaps and lotions for a Sultan's harem. It's almost a shame to use the place for its intended purpose.

The bedroom has seen maybe the fewest changes, although most are now air-conditioned. You can also buy a "white noise" machine to simulate sounds to help you sleep. During the summer when it got hot, I used to turn my bed so that I could sleep with my head nearly out the window. If the phone rang, you ran down to the kitchen to answer it. Then came "Princess" extension phones in the color of your choice, followed by portable phones, answering machines, cell phones and now Apple makes an I-phone that I think can cook your breakfast if you have the patience to read the user manual. I don't.

The innovations go on and on. The microwave oven, laptop computer, video games, fast food, the snow-blower in the garage, the seat-warmer in your car....what will be next? I appreciate progress as much as the next guy, I'm just not sure it was all for the good. Too many kids are obese and socially awkward because of not enough active play time with other children. The pleasure of sitting down with a good book is known to fewer people, especially the young. The idea of neighborhoods where people knew and helped each other is disappearing. The most commonly prescribed drugs in the country are for depression. Maybe technology extracts a price that we shouldn't be so willing to pay.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What's That Smell?

Sometimes I'll be going about my business when an aroma will hit my nostrils and immediately get my attention. (Yes you could make some "big nose" joke here, but you're better than that.) There are certain smells that have the ability to transport me back in time to the days when my back didn't ache, my eyes were like an eagle's, and I had a full head of wavy hair. (Again, resist the cheap jokes please.) The human mind links our five senses to things or events associated with past experiences, and when that sense is stimulated, these things or events rush into our consciousness. For me, I think smells are a powerful way of experiencing the world.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I was close to adulthood before it dawned on me that not everyone awoke to the smell of frying meatballs on Sunday mornings. To this day that wonderful smell transports me back to my bed on Somers Street, to a time when I could sleep past 6am. Being Italian, our family ate macaroni (not pasta) on Sundays, complete with delicious meatballs, sausage and braccioles. This is simply something Italians did as if it were the eleventh commandment; we had no choice. My mother would start frying the meatballs probably around 9am, and their fragrance would permeate the house. After frying, they went into the simmering gravy (not sauce) and took on a new tomato-cloaked, mouth-watering aroma that promised good eating by around 3pm. It's one of my strongest memories.

In the days before antibiotics, when we got sick, my mother would give us cherry-flavored cough syrup, slather our chests with an ointment called Musterole and put us to bed. This stuff was better than Penicillin. It had a unique smell like a cross between camphor, mustard and menthol, and was supposed to help clear congestion in the chest. We had a "fifties" themed Christmas a few years ago, and my daughter Laura actually presented me with a couple of jars of this stuff, probably smuggled in from some Mexican clinic. I took a whiff of it as I wrote this column, and I expect my sinuses will be clear until the Fourth of July.

They don't use it as much as they used to at Catholic mass, but the smell of burning incense is another time travel ticket for me. I was (and still am) fascinated by the Catholic ritual of high mass. In the days when the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Brooklyn was a thriving parish, high mass was something really special. An outsider couldn't imagine more pomp and circumstance at St. Peter's in Rome. The altar was crowded with elaborately robed priests and altar boys, each with his own special role in celebrating the mass. I loved when the priest burned incense in a gold colored vessel on a chain called a "censer", and walked around the perimeter of the big altar, rocking the censer in three pendulum swings toward each section of the congregation until the rich, exotic smell filled the church. Neat.

As we got off the Brighton Train at the Coney Island stop, and walked down the stairs to the street, the smell hit you...the beach. It's beyond my ability to adequately describe this heady aroma, but if you like going to the seashore, you probably know what I'm talking about. Part salt, part sand and part ocean, the smell is carried on soft summer breezes and lures you down to the sea like the Sirens' song in Greek mythology lured smitten sailors to their death on the rocks. There was a Seinfeld episode where Kramer had the idea to sell a fragrance called "The Beach" to Calvin Klein. If they could put it in a bottle, I'd buy it.

Smell associations are involuntary but inescapable; no matter what you're doing when the smell hits you, your brain takes control of your thought process and makes the connection that takes you swiftly back in time. The smells are not always pleasant, like the dentist's office, but the associations are just as strong. Sometimes the smell will never be experienced in modern times, for example, I'm thankful there aren't many chicken markets around today. So just let your nose take you back (you can't help it you know) and smile or cringe as the case may be. Mmmm, is that meatballs I smell??

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Friday, January 1, 2010

Auld Lang Syne

On New Year's Eve we had a quiet dinner with my sister-in-law and her husband. It was an enjoyable, low-key evening with family. We watched the ball drop in Times Square and the revelers standing in the rain to party in 2010. On a sad note, we again saw Dick Clark carry on his long-standing tradition of ushering in the New Year, despite the ravages of a serious stroke he suffered in 2004. One wants to applaud Dick for his courage in appearing even though he can barely speak, but one also questions his judgement in subjecting himself to the cruel jokes made at his expense. Maybe it's time to step aside. But I digress.

I got to thinking about how New Year's Eve has changed since the days when I was still a party animal. The crowd last night numbered in the millions, and the Times Square event has become a carefully orchestrated, world-renowned celebration. Back in the early Sixties I made a couple of pilgrimages to a very different Times Square. Groups of us went in on the subway carrying pints of the cheapest booze we could buy. My favorite was Old Mr. Boston Blackberry Brandy. Today alcohol is not allowed but back then it was our misguided way of dealing with the cold.

The crowds were minuscule then, maybe 10,000 people, mostly locals. There were no funny hats or goofy goggles sold at extravagant tourist prices. There were no armies of police concerned with terrorist attacks; the biggest problem the cops dealt with stemmed directly from over-consumption of Blackberry Brandy. We just kind of hung out, arriving around 10 pm. Today people show up 24 hours in advance to get anywhere near the spot where the ball drops. There was no lavish entertainment except gawking at the storefronts housing the porn palaces that made Times Square infamous before Disney and the big box stores moved in to clean up the neighborhood.

New Year's Eve parties were far more numerous and raucous in the Sixties before the big crackdown on drunk driving. People got dressed and went to restaurants and night clubs that typically featured a one-price package for dinner, drinks and dancing. And drink we did. Leaving those parties and driving home was a real adventure; the road was full of weaving cars and people behind the wheel who were in no condition to drive. The designated driver was the guy who could find his car keys. Pretty irresponsible...that's one aspect of New Year's Eve I don't miss. Parties today tend to be more sedate, family-oriented affairs and I like it much better that way.

The next day we would crawl out of bed and head somewhere for a big New Year's Day dinner. My mother-in-law was the hands-down champ of serving up multi-course, pants-open at-the-top meals that left you in a semi-comatose state. Dinner would start with an antipasto that in itself would pass for a holiday dinner in non-Italian families. Then came steaming bowls of chicken soup with tiny meatballs (an homage to our food-loving Jewish brethren), a fancy pasta like manicotti, lasagne or ravioli, "gravy meat" which consisted of meatballs, hot and sweet sausage, bracciole, pork meat, (no, we're not done), then came a roast or a turkey with accompanying side dishes like potato croquettes, crumbled up sausage with mushrooms, spinach or escarole pie, and sometimes a calamari pie. About now people were nodding off so the whistle blew for half-time.

After the break came salad (typically a last course in Italian households) roasted chestnuts, assorted mixed nuts, wedges of fennel cut up, and fruit. Then came dessert: Italian pastries, homemade pies, Ebingers cakes and coffee, both espresso and "American" coffee. Finally, for anyone who was still awake came the candy. My wife's Aunt Lu worked as a buyer in the A&S department store's candy shop, and we had enough candy to make a dentist weep. Boxes of assorted chocolates, marzipan, colored jelly slices and others that I always made room for, candy being a serious weakness of mine.

These traditions were ours and I loved them. We try to keep them alive for our children, and they are surprisingly willing, even excited about carrying them on. Let's pray that in 2010, people everywhere get to carry on their traditions in peace.


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