Presidents’ Day

So today is Presidents’ Day. I guess we have to celebrate them all now, even the one from my home state, Franklin Pierce. It’s only fair I suppose.

Quite a few presidents have served in my lifetime. I should think about them for a bit….

I was born in the Eisenhower administration. Alaska and Hawaii became states that year. Vice President Nixon debated Khrushchev in a model kitchen. But I was just a baby, concerned with other things, like colors and shapes.

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My memory was still pretty hazy in November of 1963. I recall the family, all home together as the usual television programs were pre-empted for a funeral. All I could see was a horse-drawn long wagon with a flag covering something inside. I asked what was happening. Nobody answered.

President Johnson was just an old guy with big ears who used to pop up on TV every now and then. I had no clue what he was talking about. The grown ups in my world sometime disagreed with him, usually about his decision to send more troops to Vietnam.

Nixon beat my elementary-school-era choice for president in 1968, Hubert Humphrey. I guess I just liked Humphrey’s face. I had no opinion about Nixon until years later, and even then was unclear about the whole resignation thing. I heard a lot of older people saying, “Hey, they all do that stuff. Nixon just got caught, that’s all.” Um, no.

I kind of liked Gerald Ford. He had this everyman quality. The press gave him a sort of honeymoon, until he pardoned Nixon. Then the gloves came off.

I much preferred Ford to the peanut farmer who came out of nowhere, Jimmy Carter. I still don’t know how the hell Carter won, but every time he spoke I cringed at that stupid accent. Fast forward several decades and I have great respect for ex-president Carter.

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The peanut farmer debated a former actor in October of 1980. I was now eligible to vote, but stayed home. These were my choices? Forget it. Reagan seemed to live a charmed existence, even acquiring a nickname, The Teflon President. Until he got shot. But even after that. Until Iran-Contra.

I voted for Walter Mondale in 1984. The next four years went by very slowly.

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I liked George Bush, the father. He looked and sounded like he knew what he was doing. He took us to war, but it was a controlled one, with a firm ending date. The economy tanked after that, and he seemed clueless. Too bad. A new guy came along with the tagline, It’s the Economy, Stupid, and he won.

Bill Clinton was the first winning presidential candidate that I had voted for. He got off to a shaky start, but was a quick study. He got so good at the job he seemed to disappear into it, until the sex scandal. That odd episode seems almost quaint today.

George Bush, the son? You gotta be kidding me. Hated, hated, hated him. Dragged us into never ending wars. Now he paints portraits of wounded veterans. Wish I was making this up.

I thought 2008 would never arrive.

But it did, and my choice for president was elected again. I think we all took Obama for granted. The finest leader in my lifetime, who seemed born for the job. There were long periods that I could actually forget about the president, because he was No Drama Obama, and I knew we were in good hands.

Unlike today, goddamn it.

 

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All in a Day’s Work

Remember those Warner Brothers cartoons from the 50’s and 60’s, featuring a sheepdog and a wolf?

They would turn up every morning, first thing, holding their lunchboxes and punching a time clock. “Hello Ralph.” “Hi Sam.” A couple of working stiffs. Their workday consisted of the wolf trying to steal a sheep, and the sheepdog preventing this. At day’s end, they’d clock out and head for home.

“Another day, another dollar.”

It’s a little like my work now. Except there are no time clocks.

As a kid, I really had no idea how my father spent his day. He drove off to some mysterious place in the city called Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. (The name sounds like a barrel falling down stairs.) He came home each night, with his 60’s suit, hat and skinny tie, and poured himself a bourbon with water, over ice. What did he do all day?

Now I work in an office. And I have in inkling of what it was like for my dad, who once took us to his Mad Men-like place of work. It’s not a bad life, just not what I thought I’d do back in Junior High.

My day starts at the ungodly hour of 8:00 a.m. If I could change this I would. It takes my brain and body until roughly 8:30 or later to wake up, so I use this time to scan email and check the day’s headlines.

My coffee is consumed by 8:45, so I’ll pick up yesterday’s unfinished projects around then.

What I do all day is called Data Collection, but in fact the data has been collected already. We just have to process it and massage it into a format that makes sense. And then enter it into our database. Then check to see if it still makes sense. Make sense?

This is not all I do, but mostly it is.

Music to Work By: Lunch Break: Peak Hour – The Moody Blues

The people around me (the ones not goofing off or chatting about politics) are doing the same as me, staring intently into their computer monitors. I might talk to them, and I might not.

Break time comes at 10:15. I might walk outside if the weather is nice. The office park is huge, with lots of choices. There’s even a pond.

Lunch is a godsend, and lasts from noon to one o’clock. I normally brown bag it and read at my desk, then take another walk around the premises.

It’s hard to come back at one, but we all do. Three and a half hours to go. I’m fully awake now. I usually pick an especially tough project to work on, and power through until it’s done, by God!

Music to Work By: “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by Carl Stalling

Afternoon break is at 2:45. I might go outside again, or find a small room off the hallway to read in. Or just sit in my car if I’m really tired that day.

Quittin’ time comes at 4:30. The office comes to violent life as we all gather our things and stampede to the doors. The parking lot is a busy place as well, with some people warming up their cars for the long ride home. Mine’s only five minutes, so I turn the key and take off right away. My comfortable home awaits.

Such is the life of a research analyst. Goodnight, Sam. Pleasant evening, Ralph.

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Favorite Quotes from Highway to Heaven

We have an assignment.

Look, I’m gonna cut to the chase. I’m an angel.

Cute, Jonathan, cute.

You’re on a roll, Willy.

It’s the most beautiful car in the world.  (’77 Ford LTD, dull gray, dented)

I got the Stuff! I got the Stuff!

Mark, I hate to break it to you. You never had the Stuff.

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Cute, Jonathan. Real cute.

You’re a hero to strangers…and a stranger to your children.

The Boss won’t like it.

Why don’t we ever get an assignment in Hawaii?

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

You just ate an hour ago!

Do we have an assignment yet?

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I Love My Car

What can you say about the car you’re currently driving? Does it drive like a dream, or leave you in the lurch? It is comfortable, or does it let you feel every bump and dip in the road? Does it make you cringe, or smile, as you walk up to it each day?

My car? It’s a 2015 Kia Optima. But before I describe it, let me mention a few other cars in my life.

I learned to drive in a 1967 Ford Country Squire station wagon. Seat belts were optional, so even if you could dig them out between the seats they’d be covered in sticky grime. So, free and unfettered, windows down, I drove round and round the cottages my parents owned. I learned how to turn the wheel, apply brake and gas, and not to crash.

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The Country Squire. Was it really this ugly?

By the time I got my first car, a green 1972 Chevelle, I knew how to drive. But not how to drive a stick. Luckily, a family friend had come along for the test drive, and instructed me on use of the ‘three on the tree’ stick shift. The car was boring and basic. My secret nickname for this beauty was “Box on Four Wheels.”

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The Box. What was I thinking?

I totaled it on the way to school one snowy morning.

The cars that follow make a blurry parade in my mind. The muscle car, called Plymouth Roadrunner, was the opposite of the Box. It had four on the floor, but second gear was always a crap shoot.

The 1970 Volkswagen Bug was another swing of the pendulum. The engine compression was fair when I bought it, but I knew it’s days were numbered. After six months it left me stranded on the highway, never to run again.

Subaru was my car of choice for the next period. I owned a small wagon and a hatchback, both with four-wheel drive. I learned that four-wheel is great for snow and mud, but useless on ice.

Isuzu made a large SUV called the Trooper in the eighties. Ours was bright red. I would have driven it forever, except that it turned to rust and began to sound like a Model T. So much for Japanese quality.

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This may actually be my old car. I drove my baby daughter home in it from the hospital.

We traded in the rust bucket, sadly, for a nicely kept Mercury Sable wagon. They don’t make Mercury any more but it was essentially a Ford, only slightly classier. The sound system, which played cassettes, was the best I’ve ever heard.

I discovered Kia on an expansive car lot in Manchester one summer day. The one I test drove was light blue, small but comfortable. It was called Spectra. There was an ink stain on the front seat, which I mentioned to the salesperson. He immediately took $1,000 off the price. Sold.

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Basic Transportation.

It was okay transportation for several years, but the Spectra lacked power and pizazz. While it was in the body shop, I tried out another Kia called Optima. This was a revelation. Bigger, good looking, powerful, just all-around better.

I knew I would get one someday.

Someday came in the fall of 2014. I had mostly driven used cars in my lifetime, but now was the time for something new. This car, the Optima, has class and style. It powers past other cars on the interstate. It’s comfortable and has a great stereo system. The Bluetooth sound quality almost matches that of my old friend, Sable.

It’s not a perfect beast. It’s low to the ground, so my knees are tested getting in and out. The gas pedal sticks. It lacks safety features like the rear view camera.

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The Optima.

But it gets me around like my personal magic carpet. No rust, no noisy engine, no quality issues. The Koreans have really taken the lead on quality. Even American cars are copying them.

I love my Kia Optima. Car, if you’re listening: Thanks, and please don’t let me down.

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Live Music is a Salve

It’s been a pretty busy September and October.  Ivone and I have gone a little crazy where live music is concerned. We’ve seen a lot of it. Which is great. It helps that both of us are likely to say Yes to the other’s concert suggestions.

For example, Vanessa Da Mata. I had not heard of her, but she is very popular in her native Brazil and Ivone is a fan. Her music kind of wanders between samba, reggae and pop. Vanessa blew me away with her enormous stage presence, big frizzy hair, powerful voice, graceful dancing. Four unruly young men sat next to us, jumping up every three seconds and singing along to every song

Vanessa Da Mata – Vermelho

Then there was Jesse Cook, another of Ivone’s favorites. Ivone’s friend Lucy and her husband joined us for this show in Lexington. Cook is a Canadian guitarist/singer who was born in Paris and was influenced by the music of many countries. One recent project involved recording an entire album in Columbia. He might be best known for this tune:

Jesse Cook – Cafe Mocha

Three Dog Night was a hit machine and a favorite of mine since the early 70’s. Danny Hutton keeps the band going at the ripe age of 75 and seems to be having fun. “Liar” is one tune with a backstory. All the band members had to vote on each song to be recorded and the majority ruled – among all seven, not just the three singers. The guitarist, who still stands to Danny’s left after 49 years, voted No on most tunes. But he liked “Liar.” Why? Because it had a guitar solo.

Liar – Three Dog Night

Richard Dowling from Manhattan played 100 year-old Scott Joplin tunes for over an hour at a local auditorium. Every rag, march, waltz or cakewalk had a story behind it. What’s a cakewalk? “Like Dancing with the Stars without the stars.” The judges would sit behind an enormous sheet cake, and after the contest was over, the winners would ‘take the cake’. Joplin, best known for “Maple Leaf Rag”, also composed some slower pieces that are quite beautiful.

“Bethena” – Scott Joplin

The last concert we attended, along with three friends, was the Temptations. Yes, the five man group from the 60’s and 70’s. They are down to one original singer, but the replacements did their legacy proud. “My Girl”, “Just My Imagination”, “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” They had us on our feet several times, and some of us (me) tried to copy their awesome dance moves.

My Girl – The Temptations

A headline in yesterday’s paper sums up my feelings about music, especially when it’s live: “Music a salve for a negative world.”

Couldn’t agree more.

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Pancakes in Paris – Craig Carlson

It seems inevitable now that an American would leave California to live in Paris, France, and start an American-style breakfast diner called Breakfast in America, and that it would be a great success. With hardly a bump in the road, no detours, just a smooth, straight road to a man’s dream.

Insert a throaty French laugh here: Oh-ho-ho! Au contraire, mes amis.

Yes, just about everything went wrong on Craig Carlson’s path to glory. As hilariously detailed in his first book, Pancakes in Paris, the author took an unusual route to his life’s calling. Growing up in Connecticut, moving to LA as a hopeful screenwriter, than gambling it all to open a breakfast place in a strange land. Why breakfast? He loved pancakes, bacon, hash browns and his grandmother’s scrambled eggs – none of which was available in the City of Light.

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So while in California, he lined up investors. First, the “angel investors” who were so loaded that just one could supply the needed $100,000 to get going. No luck. Then the smaller, $5,000 investors. No luck. Turns out that Carlson didn’t know enough to “ask for the order.”

Eventually, though, he learned to ask, and the smaller investments came his way. Although some could only afford $1,000. To which he sighed and said, Oui.

The whole Breakfast in America (BIA) story is laid out like an awesome brunch buffet, seasoned with Carlson’s tragicomic tone. Mon Dieu! The ups and downs of running a restaurant. French bureaucracy, immigrant workers with fake papers, incompetent managers, the Scottish waiter who made death threats, the night Carlson spent in a Paris jail.

You really don’t want to spend the night in a Paris jail.

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I labored for ten years in food service and could relate to some of Carlson’s experiences. But not as an owner. I can only imagine the strong heart, head and lungs it must take to be that guy. And do it, every day, pretty much forever.

There are now three BIA’s in Paris. If I ever go, I’d like to visit each one. Pancakes here, French Toast there, and possibly CC’s Big Mess at the third. (The recipe’s in the back of the book, by the way)

Of course, I’d always ask for the Bottomless Mug O’ Joe. Because that’s what you do in France.

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Cast Off!

Well, let’s see. A while back I told you about my epic thumb accident, which led to surgery. That happened on July 18. Questions must now be answered. What’s happened since then? Did the operation go well? What’s it like living with a cast?  And who signed it?  Are you going to live long and prosper, meremention?

I woke up from surgery with an enormous white cast. Somebody told me that everything went fine. My memory is hazy, but I know Ivone was there to get me home, and later, to her house in Watertown. I enjoyed a nice week there, basically eating, sleeping, lounging, and taking short walks.

The cast covered my entire thumb, so I needed my girlfriend’s help to do just about everything. I felt very humble asking her to tie my shoes, yet again, or tape a plastic bag over my arm, day after day, so I could shower. We really do need our thumbs.

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Once I arrived home again, my routine changed slightly. The nice lady at Concord Orthopedic took off the cast and replaced it with a green one. It was fascinating to watch as she dipped strips of green material into water, and fashioned it around my hand and arm. At the end the strips had hardened into something like plastic – you could knock on it.

Now I had the use of my fingers, with the tip of my thumb peeping out. Still couldn’t tie my shoes, so I pretty much lived in my slip-on, ratty old moccasins. I could drive, sort of, and do most things. I used a special clear bag for showering – it created a waterproof seal every time I slipped it on. It cost $28 but was well worth it.

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I became an expert in answering the inevitable “What happened to YOU?” question everywhere I went. Some people got the long version, others, the Readers’ Digest version. Still others got the extra short Readers’ Digest Condensed version.

At a recent family reunion, most of the group were stationed in the dining room so I thought I should pull out all the stops. I would deliver a perfect recitation of my woes; all the facts but not too many. I hit all the highlights and didn’t bore anyone. When finished, well satisfied, I left the room and bumped into my cousin Laurel. She did a double take, then said…”What happened to YOU?”

She got Readers’ Digest Condensed.

Some people wanted to sign my cast, and that was nice. But it’s not like the old days of smooth, white plaster. This new age material that dries hard has a very rough, burlap-y texture. You really need a Sharpie to do it right. Luckily one was handy, and Ivone was the first to sign – two lovely messages that were balm to my soul. My son Kevin was next. Then a kid who I didn’t know but seemed eager to sign. Hey, why not?

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I’ve been told it’s not really common to put messages on casts these days, but it really helped as I read them repeatedly over the following weeks.

August 15, 2017. The cast was finally coming off. Another nice lady (I guess her title would be Ortho Tech) zipped it off in minutes. And there were my long lost thumb and hand – not looking too bad but with lots of dead, peeling skin. It took a day or so to remove it all.

I still had pain, but nothing like the pain from right after the accident. I graduated to a soft brace that keeps my thumb immobile. I went back to work and can type, although I switched the mouse to the left hand – it really helps. And I started occupational therapy, with a pleasant and knowledgable person named Alyson. One week later, two sessions and lots of homework, and I’m really feeling a difference.

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So things are looking better. I’m back to tying shoes, lifting heavy objects, turning keys in locks. I think I’m going to live long, and hopefully prosper, with the full use of my hand. We’ll see.

 

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