Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Career as a Choir Boy

When I was about 10 years old I was drafted into the boys choir at Our Lady of Lourdes school. Brother Justinian, the Franciscan Brother who was also Principal of the school, ran the choir like a Marine drill sergeant. He was a foreboding figure in his long dark robe and jet black hair, combed straight back from his forehead. When the ranks of the choir started thinning because of graduations, or young boys' voices changing from soprano to that quivering in-between boy-man squeal, Brother J would come into our classrooms hunting for fresh replacements.

He would have the class stand and sing some well-known tune while he prowled up and down the rows talent scouting. In my tough Brooklyn neighborhood, most of us wanted no part of joining a boy's choir, so logic would dictate that you sing off key to avoid being picked. Brother Justinian was so feared by us however that no boy dared to tank the audition. If anything, our competitive natures kicked in and we actually tried our damnedest to please Darth Vader. Having a good soprano voice and, if I must say so, a feel for singing and music I, along with a number of my classmates, was chosen.

We practiced every morning before school in the Principal's office where Darth kept a piano. One of the reasons our choir was so good is that we practiced so hard. The Mass and the hymns were sung in Latin in those days, so we learned to sing them to phonetic perfection even though we had no idea what the words meant. On Sundays, High Mass in our parish was at 11 am. That meant the full treatment including three priests saying the Mass (mostly Irish, not one Indian in the bunch), and the full boys' choir in the ornate choir loft in the rear of the cavernous church.

Up in the loft we stood on a wooden, bleacher-type structure so that when the faithful looked up, they could see row upon row of angelic faces radiating down on them. We each were issued a thick hymnal in case we forgot the words, and each week Brother Justinian, seated at the massive pipe organ, would sternly admonish us NOT to drop the hymnals during mass. It's funny when somebody tells you NOT to do something, how often the very opposite occurs. Of course some kids would try to knock the hymnals out of the hands of other kids just to see the look Brother J shot in the direction of the offender.

A lot of us were not above mischief when things got slow out in the neighborhood streets, but when we put on our white shirts and blue ties and filed up the stairs into that choir loft every Sunday, something happened to us. As much as we didn't want to be there, when those first organ chords were struck, we sang for all we were worth. I can't explain it other than to say that most of us were into sports and had very competitive natures. If you were good enough, Brother J would pick you to solo on beautiful hymns like the Ave Maria, and that was the boys' choir equivalent of hitting one over the fence.

I'm very grateful for people like Brother Justinian who were in my young life to teach me that sometimes we are thrust into situations we would not have chosen voluntarily, but once you are tapped on the shoulder, you suck it up and give it your best shot. That mindset has helped me through some tight places.


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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

You Threw Out What???

Every boy who grew up in the Fifties has a story about how his mother threw out all his baseball cards and how, if he had them today, he could buy that house in the Hamptons. In the days before the i-Pod and the X-box we had our own, much simpler amusements, and one of them was collecting and trading baseball cards. Some of them would be truly valuable today, for example, the Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle Rookie card goes for around $162,000, The market for baseball cards has weakened along with the economy, unless you come across some of the true oldies that were originally included in cigarette packs. The Holy Grail of baseball cards is a 1909 Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates that sold recently for $2.8 million!

To us they were just pictures of our favorite players, and we collected them because we loved baseball. The cards were included in bubble gum packs...I think you got five cards in every pack. The cards retained that bubble gum smell for months until too much handling by grubby little hands finally wore it off. Topps was the big manufacturer in those days, although there were other companies like Bowman who distributed them too. The trick was to get the really popular players like Mantle, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. Typically you had to go through a lot of no-names like Smokey Burgess and Virgil Trucks before finding a Hank Aaron or Bob Feller. Star players could be traded or used in side bets when flipping cards.

We didn't just collect baseball cards, we flipped them. The rules for card flipping were simple; from a standing position, the first player takes a card, holds it along his side and then, with a flip of the wrist, lets it drop to the floor. It lands, with the player's picture facing up (heads) or the player's stats facing up (tails). The second flipper then tries to match the card. If they match (both heads or both tails), player #2 wins the cards, if they did not match, the cards goes to player #1. We would sometimes flip 100 cards at a time, so Player #1 might flip 40 heads and 60 tails, and Player #2 had to flip the same number of heads and tails to win all 200 cards. Flipping cards was a real skill. A good card flipper, with a smooth motion, could flip 100 consecutive heads and no tails. I'm proud to count this skill among my life's accomplishments.

Here is another game that requires a subtle touch. Anywhere from two to five contestants can play at a time. In this game, the object is to get your card closer to the wall than any of your opponents. Players decide how many cards will be used per round and then mark a line a reasonable distance from the wall (something like 10 feet). Standing behind the line, the first player tosses his cards (one at a time), towards the wall. The next player then goes and tosses his cards, then the next player, etc. Ideally, you might get a card so close that it is actually leaning up against the wall. Of course, if your opponent is good and goes after you, he can knock it down and potentially land even closer. The player whose card is closest to the wall wins all cards tossed during that round.

After a while, being Brooklyn kids, we started making side bets. We might flip just 25 cards to save time, but if the winner won the game, he'd pick up not just the 50 cards flipped, but collect a side bet of say 100 more cards. Sometimes the side bets would be for a prized player, say a Yogi Berra or Duke Snyder. As much fun as we had with this pastime, it would probably be frowned on today. The moralists would complain that it encouraged gambling; some would whine that losing a flipping contest could hurt a child's self-esteem; and finally the germ-o-phobes would be hovering over their kids with the hand sanitizer. Today's parents are first-class killjoys.

Thanks to my ability as a flipper, I amassed a baseball card collection comprising a couple of thousand cards that were carefully stored in cigar boxes or shoe boxes. I had the cards separated into those only good enough for flipping, and those I truly prized, and would never trade or flip. I'm not sure when it happened, but one day they were all gone. It might have been when our old house on Somers Street was sold and my mother was looking to get rid of stuff. At the time it didn't seem like a big deal. I was older and the cards seemed like baggage from my childhood. Who knew that years later they could have funded my old age better than Social Security.

Note: Card game descriptions from Streetgames.com


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

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Propagation of the Faith

Today at Mass we heard from a priest who was soliciting funds for the Propagation of the Faith. Just so you know something about them, here is a statement from their website: "Through the offering of Catholics worldwide, the Propagation of the Faith provides ongoing support for the pastoral and evangelizing programs of the Catholic Church in Africa, Asia, the islands of the Pacific and remote regions of Latin America. This includes aid for the education and support of seminarians, religious novices and lay catechists; for the work of religious communities in education, health care and social services; for communication and transportation needs and for disaster and emergency relief when necessary." As often happens to me in church, my mind wandered back to the days when we were kids, and our Catholic school sponsored a collection every Lenten season for this organization.

Catholic parishes in the United States were visited annually by missionary priests from exotic places to make an appeal for funds. Having never traveled further in the world than Long Island, I was interested in what these men of God had to say about the strange lands where they labored for the Church. They always talked about how far a dollar could be stretched in these remote and backward countries, and how even our small contributions made a difference. Our family would probably be considered poor by today's standards, but I remember feeling guilty that I would be heading home for one of Mom's fabulous Sunday Italian dinners while little Pedro in Guatemala had nothing to eat. (The church doled out guilt like a Jewish mother and easily roped us impressionable kids into the fundraising drive.)

We would be given a flat cardboard box in class that had to be folded together to form our very own collection box. It had a slot on top where our spare change (as if we had any) could be dropped in for Pedro's breakfast. My wife tells me that this was called a "Mite Box", and after looking it up, I found she was right, as usual. A "mite" is defined as a very small contribution, and was meant for children to fill with small change, thus teaching them the principle of giving to the poor. Mite Box giving promotes the spirit of contributing based on the intent to help others and not on the monetary amount. Still, when multiplied by the number of children participating, a significant amount of money was collected every year for worthy causes. Our contributions came out of our small allowances or from returning bottles for the few cents deposit. We would also hit up our parents or any unsuspecting relatives who were foolish enough to stop by during Lent.

My wife also remembers that if kids collected more than two dollars, they were entitled to a prize. I can't imagine the prizes were much considering the cost had to come out of the two bucks it took to earn one. She says she remembers receiving a tiny plaster bust of Jesus as a prize, and how much she loved it. As improbable as it might sound, raising two dollars during the 1950's was not that easy. Some kids would go from door to door in the neighborhood, but considering how many kids tried this, you can appreciate how many doorbells never got answered. I used to take loose change from my father's pockets, all the while wondering if my thefts would be forgiven considering the money was going to a good cause. Unknowingly, Tony Boots was one of the neighborhood's steadiest contributors to the Propagation of the Faith.

Pauline-Marie Jaricot founded the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in 1822 in Lyon, France. Born in 1799 to a wealthy family, Pauline at 18 years old was young, rich and beautiful. She was said to have a quick temper and an even quicker tongue – but a great deal of love in her heart. While growing up, Pauline was well aware of the deprivation and trouble in France and other countries around the world. She wanted to raise money for the 'missions' in far off places, so every Friday she went down to the factories to collect money from the workers and servants. From her early teenage years to her death in 1862, Pauline cared for the needs of some of the poorest people in the world. She herself died penniless, still trying to repay the huge debts she incurred while trying to help others.

The Catholic Church is not a perfect institution, but they have done much good, especially among the world's forgotten poor. It's true that there may be ulterior motives involved in their work like the spread of Catholicism and the recruiting of priests and lay catechists, but that doesn't make Pedro's breakfast taste less good. Feeling the old guilt return, I coughed up a few extra bucks for the second collection this morning.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Worshiping at the Altar of Technology

I was chatting with the manager of our local diner. He was frustrated trying to peck out a text message to one of his waitresses to see if she could come in to help out. "I would call her..." he said, "...but they never return phone calls, a text message is all they respond to." And so the world continues to change at an ever increasing pace. I used to pride myself on keeping up with technology, but I have given up. It's not so much that I can't learn the newer stuff, it's just that I don't see the point. Why should I have to laboriously type in a message in "text-speak" on a keypad the size of a pack of gum when I can just push one button and call you? If you're not available to answer I can leave a voice message and you can call me back. Why would you respond to a text message where you have to push tiny keys to answer me when you can just push a button and say "hello."

It's almost as if we've become so enamored with the technology that we forget it's supposed to make things easier for us. When I talk to you on the phone, I can ask or answer any follow up questions or clarify the communication as needed. With texting we need to send messages back and forth to do this, and it seems like a much less convenient and efficient way of effectively communicating. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against progress if it makes my life easier, I just resist technology for its own sake when there is no apparent benefit. Technology producers count on this blind fascination people have with gadgets. They are willing to spend thousands for Gizmo II whether or not it is really any better than Gizmo I. They actually show up with lawn chairs to wait in line at midnight so they can be the first to own Gizmo II when the doors open in the morning. Disturbing, no?

Let's back up a few decades. When telephones only came in clunky, ugly land lines with a rotary dial, they may not have looked cool but there was a major advance in communications. Technology made it possible to speak with someone without dragging your butt over to his house and ringing the bell. I'll take one of those. Moving ahead, the cell phone makes its appearance, and I can rest easier knowing if my car breaks down, I or my loved ones can call for help. Sign me up. Now it starts getting iffy. For example, do I need to download music to my cell phone or get stock market alerts sent to me? Who am I...Warren Buffet? Do I need Internet access, Mapquest or GPS software on my cell phone? At some point we cross the line from practical to marginal useful to just plain silly.

Here's another example. When television was introduced it was a sensation. Generations of people used to listening to the radio could now see their favorite performers right in their living rooms. The television was so revered that it was encased in fancy wooden cabinets and given a place of honor in the family home. Then came color TV, portable TVs for every room, plasma and HDTV, all advancing the technology of the basic concept of television, yet still with some noticeable improvement in making life better for viewers. Then we crossed the line. It is now possible to download movies to your cell phone. Why? Do you whip up some popcorn and gather the gang around your cell phone for family movie night? Who the hell wants to watch a full-length movie on a 3-inch screen. Big step backwards, yet it can cost you big bucks for the privilege.

Another beef I have with technology is that it tends to isolate people. Back in the day when I had to ring your doorbell to talk to you, I got to see you in person. I can read things in face-to-face communications that I can't see in phone calls or text messages. Not as convenient, but maybe more friendly. I also think kids are too prone to sit in their rooms with the laptop, cell phone and video games instead of getting outside and actually spending time building friendships and social skills. Child psychologists have full waiting rooms because kids can't relate to or interact with other kids. It's what we used to call "playing." We need human contact to learn about others and how to get along with them. Too many kids rely on electronic contacts and miss out on this very important facet of growing up.

Finally, being a full-time worrier, I'm concerned that the technology we develop to download our music or thaw out our frozen pizza with be used by some fanatic to detonate bombs. I know, I know, paranoia isn't healthy, but who ever thought a bunch of fumbling terrorists could manage to bring down the two greatest monuments to technology ever built by modern man.


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