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Friday, October 31, 2014

Family Candy

“Candy corn is the only candy in the history of America that's never been advertised. And there's a reason. All of the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1911. And so, since nobody eats that stuff, every year there's a ton of it left over.”
Lewis Black

On my first day in kindergarten, Sister Mary Theresa passed around a big can of gumdrops for us to sample. I took two gumdrops even though she told us to each take one. The kid next to me snitched. That’s when I learned never to trust anybody who doesn’t like candy.

There’s something about candy that defines us in a way few other things can.

Ronald Reagan, for instance, noted, “You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans.”

When Reggie Jackson belted three home runs during Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, perhaps his greatest tribute was having a candy bar named after him.

Actor Telly Savalas built his “Kojak” character around a lollipop.

In our family, my wife’s grandfather concealed a stash of Mounds bars as a special treat just for her – always, and only, Mounds. Our daughters, however, got it into their heads as youngsters that their mother adored Necco Wafers. So each birthday, Mother’s Day and Christmas, Jo Anne would be heaped with packs of the sugary stuff. It wasn’t until the girls were grown that she confessed to them that she hated Necco Wafers.

There is a nostalgia associated with candy. Hershey's has been around since 1900. You can find a recipe for S’mores in the Girl Scout Handbook of 1927. Some of us still remember the Chuckles ad slogan, “Five colors, five flavors, five cents.” And three traditional favorites comprise the top-sellers every year:
  • Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, introduced in 1928
  • Snickers, introduced in 1930
  • M&Ms, introduced in 1941
Here’s Dr. Samira Kawash, an expert on the cultural history of candy, in a Smithsonian interview a few years ago.

“There’s no sign of trick-or-treating at all until the 1930s and it really wasn’t until the late 1940s that it became widespread. In the 1970s, there was the emergence of the myth of the Halloween sadist: the idea that there are people out there who are going to poison the popcorn balls, put razors in the apples, etc. Anything that wasn’t factory-sealed wasn’t considered safe. There was a sense of loss of small-townness in that era of suburbanization. The neighbors were strangers for the first time.”

Today, though, children go from home to home trusting that strangers will give them something sweet. And adults feel no hesitation in giving candy to the small strangers on their doorstep.

At Halloween, we typically are not even cognizant of the sharing that is occurring. One poll showed that at Halloween most of us shop for the candy we favor, like a legacy we’re proud to leave the kids.

In the newly released film, The Judge, the title character’s passion for Bit O’Honey candies is handed down to his son, who in turn passes it down to his daughter. A powerful moment comes when the crusty patriarch is near death and his son surprises him with a handful of Bit O’Honeys. Candy becomes a tangible metaphor for the renewed affection the two men share – despite the strained relationship they’ve had for years.

For this fictional family, as for my family and perhaps yours, too, a brand of humble candy can serve as a bequest whose value defies definition.

In my next blog, “The Laborers Are Few”

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Yuck Factor

“Masks Confronting Death”
James Ensor, 1888

A couple of weeks ago, on what I now refer to as Bloody Monday, I had a molar extracted. The tooth extraction was quick and painless. But what followed weakened my squeamish knees.

The nurse told me to keep a firm pressure on the gauze covering the extraction site, periodically changing it during the next few hours until all bleeding stopped.

“Don’t go by the gauze,” she said. “It will be bloody every time you remove it. Look in your mouth to see if blood is still dripping, or get someone to look.”

That ain’t gonna happen, I thought. I’ll never be able to find somebody who 1) is willing to look in my mouth, and 2) won’t faint at the sight. 

Then I remembered. People love zombies. There’s an absolute zombie craze happening in movies and television programs. With the new season of The Walking Dead, zombie costumes will be this year’s hottest Halloween selection, forecasts Gary Lipovetsky, co-CEO of social commerce website

What is it that draws so many people to The Yuck Factor, I wonder. To delight in fright, to find entertainment at the sight of zombies feeding on human brains, to relish the repulsive?

We humans have at least a 2,000-year history of putting ourselves in touch with the horrible. The origin of Halloween is found in ancient Celtic festivals. Samhain commenced on the eve of October 31 and kicked off the Celtic New Year the following day. The Celts saw this as a period when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was the most transparent, enabling the spirits of the dead to visit earth.

Dr. Margee Kerr, an expert on fear, says humans are obsessed with death because we have a hard time wrapping our mind around what happens after we die. We want a life that goes on after we die. Or better yet, we yearn to live forever. But this violates the laws of nature and is, therefore, terrifying.

Why do we like being scared so much?

People are curious about how much fear they can tolerate. There is a sense of satisfaction when we prove to ourselves that we can handle more anxiety than we had imagined. Scary situations leave us with a sense of confidence after it’s over.

There’s also a hormonal reaction when we are exposed to a threat or crisis, and this can stimulate our love of being scared. The moment we feel threatened, we feel increasingly more strong and powerful physically and more intuitive emotionally. We know this charge to our physical and mental state as an “adrenaline rush.” As humans, we are hard-wired to crave this type of feeling.

On a psychological level we’re attracted to vicariously experience the forbidden, the bizarre and the dark. Horror films in particular let us explore fear in an enjoyable and safe way. They also allow us to engage with evil without getting ourselves into trouble. Identifying with the dark side of the human condition is probably as cathartic as a Greek tragedy.

The Yuck Factor is also a philosophical line of thinking – applied especially to bioethics – suggesting that an intuitive negative response to something is evidence that it’s intrinsically harmful or evil.

So as we count down to the Halloween horrors that lie only days away – the oozing undead, the blood-thirsty vampires, the visiting phantom spirits, the worms and maggots and spiders -- let’s keep this old Scottish prayer on our lips:

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

In my next blog, “Family Candy”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Learning to Learn

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, 
but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler

My father’s ambition when he was graduated from Perth Amboy High School was to be an attorney, but it was the time of the Great Depression and he entered the workplace instead, as a laborer.

He could:
  • Drive a truck
  • Hang wallpaper
  • Paint a house
  • Repair cars
  • Build furniture
  • Sew slipcovers for sofas and chairs, and curtains for windows
  • Build a doghouse
  • Put up a fence
  • Work as an ironworker in constructing whole buildings
  • Pass Civil Service exams to become a cop and then a sergeant
  • Tend bar

When he had his heart attack, he was at work as a taxi dispatcher. 

They used to call guys like him a “Jack of All Trades.” Today we call it lifelong learning.

The annual report on mortality rates by the National Center for Health Statistics, released this week, confirmed that in 2012 life expectancy for older Americans continued to climb. People who reach 65 have an average 19.3 more years ahead of them -- an all-time high.

What are we going to do with all this newfound time? If you’re a lifelong learner – plenty, because you understand that learning is not a place, but a process whose endpoint has been extended.

Learning as we used to understand it occurs in institutions designed to deliver education. The informal learning that is lifelong is most often pursued outside the walls of learning institutions.

A lot has been written about the benefits of lifelong learning: personal development, employment and earnings, economics, sense of wellbeing – even as a defense against dementia. Governments are promoting lifelong learning as a way to nurture competitiveness, innovation and growth. Some governments see lifelong learning as contributing to social cohesion.

But what about the value of a life? Does lifelong learning heighten the value of our lives?

In 2008, Time magazine reported that a human life was worth $189,000. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency set the value of human life at $9.1 million. The same year, the Food and Drug Administration put it at $7.9 million. Each of these reports crunched various numbers to come up with their assessments.

My father was deft at adding value to his life by using his hands to shape the physical environment around him. Lacking his aptitude, I’ve brought value to my life through my writing. I’ve tried to add to its value through continued learning. In recent years, for example, I’ve learned to swim and to snorkel, to sail, to operate a well-regarded bed-and-breakfast. I’ve taught myself to cook well enough to serve paying guests. I’m wrestling with Rosetta Stone to learn Italian. And I’m in the process of publishing six books.

Mary Ann Evans – the acclaimed English novelist of the Victorian era who wrote under the pen name George Eliot – said it well: "It's never too late to be what you might have been."

In my next blog, “The Yuck Factor”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fat Guy in a Fat Boat

The classic New England catboat.

“One thing about being at sea is that you don’t really get to stop. A boat simply does not allow for genuine rest. Its essential nature is peril, held in check only through enormous effort and expense.”

A Mile Down; The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea
David Vann, 2005

The year that David Vann’s disturbing book was published, I took ownership of the sailing vessel Copy Cat, the last 23-foot New England cruising catboat built by Bill Menger -- who would pass over the bar two years later.

I could write a book. So I am. Next spring – as recreational boats are being put into the water – Pamet River Books will publish The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat.

This Columbus Day weekend, however, it is being hauled out of the water for winter storage. My 2014 boating season is ended. 

Much of buying a boat is nautical foreplay:
  • Obsessively driving out to the boatyard each weekend to observe the slow birthing of the vessel
  • Trying to sound unpretentious in mentioning your upcoming “sea trials” to friends
  • Throwing a launch party, right down to a bottle of bubbly cracked against hull
When I extended my hand to accept the keys to the boat, I didn’t appreciate the “enormous effort and expense” described in Vann’s book.

Copy Cat’s homeport, for example, is Red Brook Harbor, at the upper end of Buzzards Bay, just outside the Cape Cod Canal. Frequent brisk winds over the funnel-shaped Bay cause contrary interplay with tides in the Bay’s relatively shallow waters, resulting in a phenomenon known as “standing waves” – as high as six feet -- near the Canal. So Buzzards Bay always makes the Top Ten lists of “Most Challenging” bodies of water in which to sail.

Then there’s my own ineptitude. In the years I’ve skippered Copy Cat, I’ve kept a growing list of blunders:
  • Raising the peak spar first instead of throat and peak spars together
  • Forgetting to loosen the topping lift after the sail has been raised
  • Confusing the 2nd reef outhaul with the first
  • Running aground
  • Running out of fuel
But the heart will not be denied. From earliest times, our ancient ancestors clustered their dwellings near bodies of water – ponds and lakes, rivers, the seas. As a species, we come from water and are so much composed of water that we instinctively regard it as our natural habitat.

In her memoir, Paris France, Gertrude Stein wrote:

“Writers have two countries. The one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic. It is not real but it is really there.”

This is true not only for writers, but for sailors, too. Which of the two is our real country?

Sailors have a romantic anticipation in our mind’s eye of how we want things to unfold aboard the private little country that is our boat. But factors as simple as worsening weather or a failed shackle or a dry fuel tank wrench us back to the real.

Still, I can’t wait for spring, when I can return to the private little country that is my boat.

In my next blog, “Learning to Learn”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Life in Black and White

Everybody has to have an Aunt Sally in their lives. Without one, life is less.

My Aunt Sally would have been 97 today if Parkinson’s disease hadn’t taken her in 2001. 

Unlike my mother, who quit school after the eighth grade, Aunt Sally was a high school graduate. She carved a life-long career for herself as head of Personnel for the IRS headquarters in lower Manhattan.

And she was such an influence on me that my mother was jealous of her.

I had inherited Aunt Sally’s severe overbite, and she must have known that this malocclusion would adversely affect my self-image as it had hers. So she took me to an orthodontist while I was still in middle school and paid for braces to straighten my severely buck teeth.

She took me on an eight-grade graduation trip to DC, encouraged me to study for the priesthood and visited me in the seminary every parents’ day because my mother and father never did. When I determined that I did not have a calling to the priesthood, she steered me toward Fordham to complete my university studies.

Like the movies that were the dominant cultural centerpiece for so many people in the 1940s and 50s, she was a woman who lived her life in black and white. Decisions, choices, directions were easy, and to this day I cite Aunt Sally’s many aphorisms as worthy and relevant guideposts along life’s journey:

“You never want to look chintzy” …

“Don’t act hoity-toity around people” …

“It’s God’s baby, not yours …”

The “Aunt Sophie” character in my novel-in-progress, Down the Edges, is drawn in part from the real-life Aunt Sally:

“Jenny was sure her Aunt Sophie would hate the house. After all, she had appointed herself arbiter of what in Jenny’s life was good or bad. Aunt Sophie wasn’t coming to Cape Cod to eat clam rolls and lobsters, but to pass judgment on Jenny’s new place. Presuming the infallibility of the Pope, Aunt Sophie proclaimed ex cathedra on the range of life’s decisions – Colgate is the only toothpaste to buy; beds should be made up immediately upon rising; Milky Way candy bars are preferred to Snickers; Martinis may commence precisely at noon, earlier if you have company.”

Unlike fictional Aunt Sophie, though, real Aunt Sally was a reverent woman. You would find her at the first Mass of the day every Sunday, occupying the same pew in church. During her long commutes to work, she read and re-read the essays of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen as if they were divinely inspired. She even had a schoolgirl’s crush on the handsome pastor with the beautiful tenor voice.

After spending her prime years alone, she fell in love -- at 54 -- with a co-worker. A divorcee and an irreligious Protestant, he was far from her type. But he was a Yale man, and that counted for a lot to the high school graduate that Aunt Sally was. It was not a good marriage -- not the congenial relationship she had anticipated and deserved. Alone again after her husband's death from advanced alcoholism, Aunt Sally’s latter years were sad ones. 

French Novelist Simone de Beauvoir said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

My Aunt Sally didn’t know she was strong, wasn’t aware she was an inspiration. She thought she was, simply, a woman.

In my next blog, “The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat”