Christmas Is For The Innocent

Several years ago, I came across this story published in the New York Daily News by Karen Zautyk. She is a former Editorial Board member there who originally wrote this for her father, John. I think it captures the essence of Christmas being most of all…for the innocent.

O, Little Lamb…Who Made Thee?

It was cold in the stable that night and the animals were huddled together for warmth. The cows and the oxen and the donkeys.

And one little lamb.

Sad, scrawny little lamb, born lame and frail. Too frail to be out with the flock in the fields. The shepherds had carried it into the stable where it would be safe from the wind and the wolves, for both the wolves and the wind came down from the hills with fierceness in the wintertime.

The lamb had food and shelter but that was not enough. It was lonely. Separated from its mother, it felt unloved. The other animals tried to be kind but they had no time. During the day they were busy working. The cows had milk to make, the oxen had earth to plow, and the donkeys had carts to pull.

At night they were all very tired. They’d feed upon the fodder and then go right to bed. None would talk, none would play. None would even sing a lullaby to a lamb that needed comfort. Every night the lamb would cry, and be told to hush, for its bleats disturbed their sleep.

Thus, that night, the lamb cried without making a sound as it had learned to do. And it looked at the strangers who were sharing the stable.  At the man, who held the woman’s hand and spoke to her so softly. And especially at the woman, who spoke not at all.

Huddled together, the animals slept, and eventually the lamb slept too.

And the night was silent.

But then, in the darkest hour, there was no more darkness and no more silence. There was the cry of a baby. And the stable shone with the brightest of lights, and there were voices ringing in the air.

The animals, shaken from their dreams, were frightened. They stamped their hooves and tossed their heads and made their frightened-animal noises…but the light was so lovely and the voices so beautiful it wasn’t long before they quieted and began to lose their fear.

And when the light had dimmed to a glow and the voices were only an echo, there in the manger they saw the baby…and their eyes went wide with wonder.

The animals murmured but would not approach until the woman beckoned. Then, one by one, the beasts came forward. All, that is, except the lamb…which was only a baby itself and still terribly afraid. Forgotten by the others, it trembled in a corner and tried to hide beneath the hay.

But. the baby in the manger was trembling too. The cold of the night had returned and the baby had started to shiver. When the animals saw this, they huddled closer about the crib.

The man took off his cloak and made a blanket of it, but the cloak was thin and threadbare and provided little warmth. The woman held the baby to her breast. He shivered still…and she began to weep.

And the lamb, which knew what weeping meant, lifted itself from the hay. Though it was still afraid…it left its hiding place. It made its way among the legs of the bigger beasts until it stood beside the woman…and it laid its head against her knee.

And the softest of hands reached down and stroked its wool.

And the gentlest of hands picked it up and tucked it into the manger straw…and tucked the baby in beside it…and covered them both with the cloak. The baby snuggled near and smiled…and closed his eyes.

And the lamb was very glad it had learned to cry without making a sound. Because it was crying now and didn’t want to wake the child.

But the lamb wasn’t crying because it was sad. It was crying because, at last, it didn’t feel alone. Or afraid. Or unloved.

Then the lamb closed its eyes too.

And the woman sang a lullaby.

 

Picture Courtesy New York Daily News

A Glow In The Darkness Is The Best Gift Of All

In May, 2013 a columnist by the name of Craig Wilson took his final bow after a buyout from his employer, USA Today. He wrote a weekly column for them called “The Final Word” for more than sixteen years. His writing – regardless of the subject matter – provided readers with a unique, thoughtful take on even the most take-for-granted aspects of daily life.

During his long career there, one December he wrote an article which dealt with holiday decorations. Specifically, displays that provide a depth of feeling that make passers-by smile and project the spirit of the holidays upon them.

I present this gentle reminder from Craig Wilson (and his father) of just how simple, yet magical, this season can be…

A Glow In The Darkness Is The Best Gift Of All

Every December, a neighbor of ours opens his dining room shutters and lets in the world.

A floor-to-ceiling tree, laden with ornaments and white lights, fills the bay window. Underneath it is spread an assortment of antique toys. Original Raggedy Ann books, a model train engine from the Pennsylvania Railroad, a fire truck and an assortment of old stuffed animals. An elephant. A bear. A well-loved floppy-eared rabbit sporting a winter sweater and seated in a wicker sleigh, ready to glide.

The window, which is right on the sidewalk and perfect for viewing, has become a holiday tradition in the neighborhood. Like many, I make a detour on my nightly dog walk just to pass by.

I know there will come a Christmas when the display won’t be there, but until then, I happily take in the annual offering, just as I used to take in the mesmerizing holiday windows years ago at Sibley’s department store in Rochester, N.Y.

The magic of our neighborhood window, however, is that there’s nothing commercial about it. My neighbor offers up the display every year purely for the joy it might give a passerby, not to make a sale or hype a product.

It’s perhaps the simplest of Christmas gifts, which also makes it the best.

When I was walking Maggie the other night, I watched as a young mother and father pointed out the various toys to their daughter. She was maybe 3 or 4 and in her father’s arms. From the look on her face, you’d have thought she was in another world. Maybe she was.

And then the trio strolled away, happy perhaps in the belief that they’d just had one of the most pleasant and innocent experiences of their hectic holiday. A serendipity of the season.

When I was growing up in the country, Christmas displays like my neighbor’s window were not abundant.

But I remember being impressed that someone would take the time and effort to hang, say, a single strand of multicolored lights around their barn door. Or wrap a lamp pole with lights, aglow at the end of the lane. A lonely beacon in the night.

My dad did the same.

Christmas after Christmas, he would run the world’s longest extension cord across the snow-covered front yard, down to a tiny fir tree that proudly stood sentinel by the side of the road.

He covered the tree with what seemed like thousands of lights, and every night at 5, he turned them on with all the flourish of lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center.

I’ve often wondered what people thought as they drove down this country road, in the middle of nowhere, and came upon a solitary tree glowing in the December darkness.

Maybe they thought it was the prettiest thing they ever saw. Maybe they saw it as a gift.

Maybe they realized someone was just sharing his joy. Nothing to sell. No agenda in mind. Something done just for the joy of it. Like my neighbor’s magical window.

And maybe that’s what it’s all about.

 

 

Picture Courtesy Keil Tree

Collections Has Christmas Too

My wife has worked in the world of business-to-business Collections for twenty-five years now. The essence of her job is straight-forward…to collect as much money as possible in as timely a manner as possible.

Being good at doing it? Tough.

Being liked while doing it? Tougher.

I love the reactions when my wife tells new acquaintances she works in Collections. I often feel like their expressions reveal one of two thoughts: “I would not want to do that” or “You must not be well-liked.”

She is good at Collections. That’s not just me saying that. Her employers have always praised her work. As well, I’ve always felt she’s even liked by some of the accounts she collects money from. As for the others, at the very least she’s respected.

Not despised, as you might expect.

She approaches her work professionally, which I believe is the main reason she’s successful. I always assumed customer contacts on the other end of her phone calls and e-mails would react more favorably to someone like her who treats their account with respect. When Covid reassigned both of us to work from home, I actually got to see her doing her job, which confirmed my assumption.

Fear not, for my wife can put the hammer down when need be. She has to collect some big amounts from some large corporations. Corporations that like to play the cash flow game, stretching out payment until the last possible day, before the status of their pending order would be called into question.

It is inevitable over time each customer she collects from slips up in some manner…misplaces invoices…can’t get payments out on a specific day as promised, etc. She has heard it all, and certainly remembers who she can trust more than others. Customers certainly remember how she handled their delays in payment, whether deliberate or not. Firmly, but fairly.

She always gives me just enough rope to “hang myself” at home…and allows the same “courtesy” for her customers.

At Christmas, people who work in Collections often are hit with the cold reality they simply aren’t as well-liked as Customer Service or Sales…or even the Management within their organization. Those departments tend to get all the tokens of appreciation from customers and suppliers during the holidays. Cookies, snacks, etc. are earmarked for them…not for Collections.

Yet, a couple of years ago on the day after Christmas, my wife received a Christmas card (she’s used to getting things late...) from one of her customer contacts. This customer would occasionally be on my wife’s “Naughty List” for bad payment behavior. But, this customer hadn’t needed product recently, were up-to-date in payments, and as a result my wife had not spoken with the contact for a good while.

The note on the inside of the card read…“I miss talking with you!”

A Christmas miracle. A Christmas card for Collections.

Collections has Christmas too.

Avatar Returns – Marvel’s Phase 4 Ends

There have been times in life where I have felt like I must be missing something others are seeing. Instances where at the very least, my perception is I am out on an island with my thoughts compared to the rest of the population. As if…I’m the only person who feels a certain way about something.

Like the movie “Avatar.”

But…confirmation I am not alone in wondering how it became the highest-grossing film in history comes from Jamie Lauren Keiles, who wrote a column for the New York Times Magazine titled “Avatar and the Mystery of the Vanishing Blockbuster.”

The very presence of the cereal box pictured above, recently spotted at a local grocery store, possibly begs to differ about the film vanishing from our culture. At the very least, Kellogg’s is betting “Avatar” is still – or will be once more – a big deal.

And according to Keiles, a study by the consumer-research firm MRI-Simmons found an estimated one in five American adults have seen “Avatar.” In the theatre, mind you.

In less than two weeks, the long-awaited (?) sequel to this 2009 sensation will open, “The Way of Water.”

“Of all the questions raised by “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the most pressing seems to be “who asked for this?” Through the first “Avatar” was the world’s top-grossing movie not once, but twice, reclaiming the title from “Avengers: Endgame” after a 2021 re-release in China, its most oft-cited claim to fame is its surprising lack of cultural impact. While films of similar scale and ambition – “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Iron Man” – have spawned fandoms and quotable lines and shareable memes and licensed merchandise, “Avatar” has spawned mainly punch lines.”

“On the fifth anniversary of the film, Forbes announced, “Five Years Ago Avatar Grossed $2.7 Billion but Left No Pop Culture Footprint.” A few years later, Buzzfeed ran a quiz titled “Do You Remember Anything at All About Avatar?” challenging readers to answer basic questions like, “What is the name of the male lead character in Avatar?” and “Which of these actors played the male lead?”

No follow-up movie until thirteen years later is certainly a factor as well.

I am one of those American adults who has never seen “Avatar” in a movie theatre. It is very strange I didn’t see it when it first opened. My wife and I try to average at least one movie a week throughout the year. It was the week before Christmas…there were other movies…and the subject matter simply didn’t do anything for us even though a lot of folks were reporting how dazzling the film’s visuals were.

We eventually caught up with “Avatar” when it first debuted on cable, and while mindful we were not experiencing a fully-immersive, multi-dimensional theatre view, it still didn’t do much for us…an ok film for me. My wife? She liked it a bit less than ok.

Director James Cameron certainly crafted a spectacular world for viewers to visit, and perhaps this is as simple as people just loved the look of the movie when it came out, different to them from anything they had seen before. It should be noted Cameron’s world of Pandora is one of five “lands” within Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and apparently is not lacking for attendees even at this “late” date. That has to count for something.

“The history of recorded images might be described as an incremental quest to master the building blocks of consciousness – first sight, then motion, then sound, then color. With “Avatar,” Cameron revealed that human ingenuity could marshal even more: physics, light, dimensionality: the ineffable sense of an object being real; the life force that makes a thing feel alive.”

My wife and I are avid moviegoers. Next weekend, we’ll be sitting in an IMAX theatre with 3-D glasses on. We’ll give this sequel as good a chance as possible of winning us over…like the original film certainly did for many others.

If we’re sufficiently wowed, maybe we’ll even give the cereal a try. Hard to resist Blueberry-Flavored Blue Moons…

As for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which began with “Iron Man” the year before “Avatar” was released), the studio has confirmed their Phase 4 of viewing concluded with the streaming release of “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.” I’ve documented being a bit underwhelmed about how Marvel has proceeded with their storytelling since the afore-mentioned “Avengers: Endgame.”

That being said, I recently was reading of all things a column on Fantasy Football (which I spend a ridiculous amount of time on even though the hobby is truly ridiculous…so there’s no need to elaborate further) when lo-and-behold the author took time out from his day job to list his personal Marvel Phase 4 rankings. I’m not a big list guy at all when it comes to creative enterprises, because everyone has their own unique experiences and feelings when enjoying art, music, shows, and movies. In the past I haven’t embraced award shows like the Emmys and Oscars because of that very reasoning. Yet, I do like the idea of reviewing and turning the page on Marvel as we enter the New Year so here we go…

(If you have no earthly idea what the MCU is I thank you for reading this far, and hope to see you next time. For those venturing forth, please feel free to let me know your likes and dislikes regarding these rankings…appearing here from my favorite down to my not-so-favorite)

  1. Spider-Man: No Way Home – Head and shoulders above the rest. Awesome. Great. Much love. Best Marvel effort since Endgame.
  2. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – If I were in charge, I would have just flipped the mid-movie and end-of-movie battles. The transition in power was handled perfectly and tastefully. All involved did themselves proud.
  3. WandaVision – Took a while to get going, but eventually got there and stuck the landing. Poor Wanda.
  4. Hawkeye – The setting is at Christmas, and I do like me some Christmas. Besides, archery is cool.
  5. Loki – Wanted it to be a bit more than it was…but pretty darn good as is.
  6. Moon Knight – I’m sure I liked this way more than most, but I thought Oscar Isaac was great.
  7. Werewolf by Night – A wonderful Halloween treat (albeit a short one) which I enjoyed a lot. I want more of this in the MCU going forward.
  8. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Solid film until the ending, and then it fell apart for me. Still ranking it here.
  9. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – I can’t believe I have this ranked so high, but the overall Phase 4 set a very low bar. Poor Wanda.
  10. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law – I know some will wonder why I have this ranked so high. But once I dealt with the fact this was strictly being played for laughs, I enjoyed it.
  11. Black Widow – She died, and then she got her origin story? It was fine. Ok. Thanks.
  12. Thor: Love and Thunder – Thor: Ragnarok was spectacular. But they tried to do it all over again and…no. Just. No.
  13. Ms. Marvel – I’m confident I’m not the demo they were going for, but I really liked the Jersey City half of this.
  14. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special – A nice holiday gift for fans…but maybe just give us a solid Phase 5 next year. That would be a much better gift.
  15. Eternals – Some people probably have this ranked last. I do get it.
  16. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – Probably way too harsh a ranking based on my ridiculously high expectations. It just didn’t connect with me.
  17. What If…? – I don’t ask “what if” anymore. I just care about what is. Hell, it’s confusing enough keeping up with all things Marvel.
  18. I Am Groot – I am not Groot, but I do love Groot…just not in this.

Last Christmas

At this time of year, it seems like we’re all supposed to be ridiculously happy, hanging out with all our loved ones, and getting all we ask for whether tangible or intangible gifts. That is not reality. For some, the holidays are a sad and challenging time…made more so by those artificially-created, lofty expectations they should be feeling exactly the opposite.

Life doesn’t operate on a schedule, and Life could care less what time of year it is. Relationships end during the holidays, illness arrives during the holidays, and loss is experienced during the holidays. The commercialization of the season – which starts earlier each year – disappoints those who fear its true meaning has been lost. Financial concerns. Job losses. Christmas time is for many at best bittersweet…at worst the worst.

I have empathy for those who don’t care for this time of year…those who just want the holidays to be over with…and to already be living in the new year.

I will celebrate the holidays here. I’ll also reference religious beliefs regarding Christmas. That being said, if you are someone who wishes it was already January 2nd, be advised I get it. My mother passed away days before Thanksgiving several years back, so of course I now think about that at Thanksgiving. Life didn’t care Thanksgiving was coming. But that’s…Life. It certainly helped enhance my awareness this time of year isn’t for everybody. Life doesn’t have a calendar.

I am not an expert on the acclaimed sci-fi television series “Doctor Who” but I have seen several seasons of it. Each year at this time, I revisit their wonderful Christmas episodes. There is one in particular titled “Last Christmas.”

The idea of Last Christmas is not restricted to this episode; it is a Who-ism. It speaks towards people wanting to get together at this time of year with those they love…because there is the chance it might be the Last Christmas they get to do so. The holidays can still be a magical time for some of us, even if Life hasn’t always been kind each and every holiday season, and even if it feels others act like this time of year is more about getting rather than giving…or giving thanks.

Expressions of and gratitude for love are “expected” for those who love Christmas. But for those who don’t love it, I keep in mind all the love they possess, express, and are grateful for. Partners, relatives, pets. Here…and no longer here. None of us can control Life, but all of us can possess and express love every day of the year… and always be grateful for whom we love.

I saw a commercial a few seasons ago from AT & T. The narrator said AT & T knows the best kind of holiday is the one where everyone gets what they wish for. To me, the best kind of holiday -whether celebrating it or not – is one where I express my appreciation and gratitude for those I have love for.

I sometimes find myself at Christmas silently wishing there will be a next. That it won’t be Last Christmas. It can be a sobering concept to think about. Yet, I find myself in those moments also thinking about Biblical interpretations of 1 Corinthians regarding the concept of love.

Love never fades, never fails, never ends.

Last Christmas?

Never.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

It’s Still A Dilbert World

The headlines continue to speak towards employment uncertainty in a lot of places. Layoffs are certainly no laughing matter. I was caught up in two of them, and unfortunately for me they were back-to-back in the mid-section of my career, working in manufacturing supply chain roles (planning, purchasing, logistics). In the first instance, my company was acquired and merged with an overseas operation who grossly miscalculated the cost of such an acquisition, and decided to rectify the problem via layoffs. In the second instance, my company decided they would be much better off making a more cost-effective (cheap) product in Mexico, completely shutting down its U.S. location in the process.

The comic strip Dilbert debuted in 1989. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s probably simplest to report Scott Adams’ strip contains all the righteous and outrageous sarcasm about work and the workplace later characterized in both the British (2001) and American (2005) television shows The Office. For those of us who were in office jobs at the time this strip began, it quickly became clear Adams was drawing from his own personal experience – which aligned with our experiences – making the strip even more relatable and timely.

For me, the craziest thing about this 33-year-old comic strip is it is still relevant. The title of Adams’ most recently released compilation is called The Office Is A Beautiful Place When Everyone Else Works From Home. His next comic collection, scheduled for release next month, is titled Not Remotely Working. Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately companies are still just as stupid as ever, humanity is still not a part of human resources, and co-workers are still…unique…whether we’re dealing with them in the office, remotely, or both.

When I began my self-titled First Retirement at the beginning of June, I really felt at that point like I was just walking off the chessboard (spoiler alert, the name of this blog). I think at certain times in our lives we can feel like we’re just pawns on a chessboard, especially with regards to work. I know after those consecutive layoffs, I felt like I had no control over how life was playing out. I never did get another supply chain role quite like those two positions I held, which also happen to be the best jobs I’ve ever had.

You know how you’ll focus on something as a way to shut down negative or anxious feelings coming on? A memory, thoughts of a loved one, a quote or saying…anything at all to put whatever you’re dealing with in an easier-to-deal-with mindset and perspective? For me, navigating corporate workplaces in those earlier years was a hell of a lot easier with Dilbert around because if nothing else, it reminded me I was far from alone in the daily, relentless struggle against organizational bad behavior. Back then, I didn’t have nearly as much life experience as I own now. Whether I return to work someday or not, I can easily maintain a healthy sense of humor about anything work-related. I have always believed you shouldn’t dwell or ruminate upon things out of your control – like business decisions, bad bosses, crazy co-workers – and keeping a sense of humor about work helps me stay sane.

Dilbert’s portrayal of layoffs were strikingly similar to mine…

Layoff #1 – After our company was purchased and merged with the overseas organization, oh, we had our suspicions…

Layoff #1 – When our company had to decide whom to layoff, I certainly envisioned some of our departments doing it along these lines…

Layoff #1 – Our company referred to the layoffs as “right-sizing” the organization. Using the word “layoffs” was obviously considered way too realistic. For those “survivors” not in the first round of layoffs, they were pretty much left behind with this scenario…

Layoff #2 – Initially, our company told us we would be teaching the Mexico facility how to make our products so they could help the entire organization out. Our U.S. location had a healthy backlog of orders we could not make in a timely manner, and their facility recently had “acquired” some additional capacity (they lost a major customer…yeah, that usually results in additional capacity…). A few months later, we knew better when…

Layoff #2 – Pretty much the conversation I had with someone in management at our company before the layoffs were announced…

Layoff #2 – As rumors continued to run amok, I just wanted to take off on a Friday and enjoy a three-day weekend…

Thank you, Scott Adams…then and now.

 

Pictures Courtesy Andrews McMeel Syndication

The Grass Is Not Always Green

Currently operating within my recently-developed parameters of First Retirement (no clue if not working will actually take) I have been able to spend more time at my keyboard reading and commenting on other blogs, as well as tending to my own site.

When my computing status changes to Away From Keyboard, one of the reasons why is the weekly endeavor of tending to the lawn…armed with my edger, my blower, and last but not least…my trusty push mower.

You may recall from a prior post I had an unfortunate event with a riding mower at our last residence…

We had a Zero Turning Radius mower. When we bought it, the advice was given to us not to operate it in wet conditions, especially on uneven terrain. After a light rain one afternoon, I insisted to my wife it would be OK to mow. Not agreeing with the decision, she grudgingly came outside to do some gardening. When she got to the large rose bush I had skidded into at the edge of our driveway, I tried my level best to assure her I was OK…even though my face felt like half the skin was gone. She gave me a once-over from head to toe…and calmly stated, “You’ll be fine.” Two years later, she admitted she thought those cuts would never heal.

Our current yard features a fairly steep slope, a bit more severe than our prior home. My wife “strongly suggested when we moved here this lawn not be cared for with a riding mower.

The property here isn’t quite a half-acre, so a push mower really is more than capable of getting the job done. To be honest, using a riding mower on this yard might find me in the backyard of the house behind us…with the mower on top of me.

We have lived at our current residence for about seventeen years. In that time, the yard has seen anything and everything weather in the Northeast US can provide. Thirty inches of snow and ice at one time. Eight inches of rain in an hour. Two months with 90 degree temperatures and no rain. Numerous demented squirrels.

You can find great advice on the Internet about taking care of your lawn and in many cases it is 100% contradictory. The only 100% foolproof advice I have ever gotten for lawn care actually came from my wife. It was the year I accidentally grabbed the nonselective herbicide RoundUp instead of the selective herbicide Ortho Weed Clear and sprayed several dandelions in the front yard with it. Her advice was if I ever did that again, she would round up all of my sports memorabilia and spray RoundUp on it.

One of the things I obsess over a bit is when to execute the very last mow of the year, trying to guess when grass-growing will slow to a crawl, as well as how high to leave the lawn for the off-season. Seven years ago, there was a particularly snowy and icy period one Fall before the yard had a chance to freeze, and with the grass also sitting a bit higher than I’d usually let it go, we had a resulting touch of what is known as snow mold. Snow mold does not do any permanent damage, but it was weird seeing parts of the lawn a shade of pink. At least we were fortunate enough to get the colorful version, as the other shade of snow mold is apparently a very dull gray. However, you might not be surprised a partially pink yard isn’t that visually appealing either, so the goal since that incident is to keep any snow mold from happening so the lawn has a nice, quiet transition into and out of dormancy.

I am a bit sad when the last mow of the year takes place. While the front yard is for the most part level, the lawn on the sides of the house slope down fairly severely through the backyard until it reaches the invisible yet defined property line with the home behind us. Mowing our yard does provide good exercise, and not mowing for a few months means I try to incorporate other activities to replace it. Snowfall removal certainly gets the blood pumping, but that’s sporadic and we don’t get quite as much snow as we used to. It is a good thing I am a “winter person” to begin with, and I do like to get outside no matter what. Hell, I’ve been known to go down to the basketball courts and shoot hoops even in snow flurries.

I’ve also been known to mow even in snow flurries. I’m actually a bit of a celebrity in that regard. One of my neighbors told me after one late-year mow five years ago I had amused both her and her husband.

“Hey honey, come here. Bruce is mowing in the snow.”

Maybe I do try a little too hard to coordinate and calculate the end of the growing season and getting the length of the grass just right. Looking back over the last few years, my last mow of the year has occurred as follows:

2014 – 11/8; 2015 – 10/31; 2016 – 11/19; 2017 – 11/20; 2018 – 11/8; 2019 – 11/1; 2020 – 11/20; 2021 – 11/10

The irony is not lost on me the very fact I have a record of these dates may very well be a sign I take this a bit too seriously.

In any event I am now monitoring the weather forecasts, examining the length of the blades of grass, and trying to time that final mow perfectly to ensure the lawn has the best chance of staying greenish instead of pinkish. Or grayish. I know if it changes colors again, the lawn will eventually be fine, but I really don’t want the yard to be stressed out.

I could just hire a lawn service to keep myself from being stressed out, but can I really put my trust in others…even if they appear to be as competent as I am?

 

Pictures Courtesy Advanced Turf/Great Lakes Landcare/Universal Studios

Being Chill

The above greeted me when I walked into our Acme grocery store a couple of days ago.  The gentleman pictured is none other than Jalen Hurts, who is the quarterback for the only undefeated team in the National Football League, our hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Before I entered the store, I had no earthly idea a company named Lemon Perfect even existed, let alone they had a product described as Hydrating Lemon Water.

But I immediately wanted to try it.

Sales and marketing to consumers….some is subtle, some is subliminal, some is a punch in the face. All are designed to separate our money from our wallet. Intellectually, I know this. But emotionally, I also know I sometimes get an immediate desire to acquire based on the advertising alone. Not just for what the product is, but for what feeling I’m supposedly going to experience from using it.

Now, just because Hurts is pictured with a bottle of hydrating water, I’m not instantly inclined to buy it. But of course, it doesn’t hurt.

The primary reason I immediately became fascinated with this product is because of lemons. I love lemons. If I come across something with lemon represented to be in it, there’s a sort of invisible, irresistible magnetic beam which inevitably draws me to it. Even if it’s something I don’t need, ever wanted before now…you get it.

Because I was in a bit of a time crunch at that point, I only had time to procure the milk, bread, and eggs we really needed…but Lemon Perfect Hydrating Lemon Water is now atop the grocery list for the next stop. While I remain highly skeptical of how much more hydrated this product will really make me than plain old H2O…if this tastes like real lemons it could be a “need.”

Later in the same day, I saw a TV spot for a product called Honey Lemon Chill Vicks VapoCOOL Severe Cough Drops.

You know where this is going, don’t you? These are already in the medicine cabinet. I don’t have a cough, but I am all for preventive medicine so I’ve already sampled this product. Not bad at all – enjoyed the lemon taste.

What you don’t know yet is the marketing on this product wasn’t just attractive to me because it was represented to be lemon-y, but because of the use of the words “cool” (VapoCOOL!) and “chill.” And this is where I pivot from what’s supposedly in the product…to how it will be received by my sensory receptors. Cool and chill are very much purchase trigger words for me by themselves…more so when used together.

I already use a product because it is “arctic”…

Now, I don’t know exactly where this all began. I’ve liked Winter for as long as I can remember, but when a food or beverage product is marketed as arctic, ice, cool, cold, chill, etc. it creates an emotional response within me which often leads to me buying and trying the product. I have the exact opposite buying emotion when it comes to products marketed with descriptions including words like tropical, sun, warm, hot, heat, etc.

Yeah, it probably IS a Winter thing.

Putting lemon, cool, and chill together in the same description made it just a matter of time before I bought those cough drops. If Vicks had advertised them with the lead ingredient as horseradish instead of honey, I would still have bought a bag.

I will confess neither the Vicks cough drops or the Altoids mints made me feel cool or chill or in the arctic while using them. I remained at 98.6 F. In the instance of the word chill, maybe the sales and marketing folks are just using it like cool kids use it these days?

No matter. It’s cool. I’m chill.

While thinking about ad-driven purchases, I also remembered another item I buy that falls into this brisk category…caramel cold brew coffee. You know by now they had me at “cold” brew, right? Be advised, I also love me some caramel…as much as lemons. If someone ever successfully grows a caramel lemon tree, I’m purchasing it.

While I know there is a defined, unique process to creating cold brew coffee, I really have no idea if my local Dunkin’ strictly adheres to it all the time because they are super-busy all day long. Hell, with the three pumps of caramel I get added to each order for all I know it’s just yesterday’s regular coffee not reheated. Regardless, it helps get me going in the morning. It’s definitely cold…and it’s positively caramel.

It also should be noted here our local Dunkin’ franchises are huge Philadelphia Eagles supporters. (Did I mention the Eagles are undefeated?)

The sales and marketing gurus got me once again yesterday…when I noticed a food article online. It was about a product that won’t even be on store shelves until February, 2023…M&M’s Caramel Cold Brew Candy.

I sprained my wrists getting to the M&M’s website.

I’ll admit to being skeptical these will be colder than other M&M’s. No matter. The website asked if I’d like to be notified when this new item will become available. Yes, please. However, I am taking no chances. Once the calendar flips to 2023, I’ll be pro-actively calling around asking stores ”DID YOU GET THEM YET?”

Sales and marketing pros look to connect with consumers any way they can, not only promoting what their products are all about, but also by creating an expectation of how we will feel using them. This new M&M candy is a perfect example of this. According to M&M’s, the Caramel Cold Brew Candy will be represented by the new Purple M&M, which they note is distinguished by her authenticity, self-awareness, and confidence.

Who wouldn’t feel good buying Caramel Cold Brew Candy from that spokescandy? There’s a legitimate potential when this product comes out…it might just sell out.

Maybe I’ll start calling around in December…

 

Pictures Courtesy Proctor & Gamble/Mars Incorporated

Crossing Pumpkins

We won’t be putting out pumpkins on the front porch this October. Two years ago, we went outside one crisp, early October morning to find our three pumpkins in various states of distress and eaten-ness. Our squirrels apparently decided there weren’t enough nuts out there in the world to nosh on, so they turned their attention to our vulnerable decorations. It was not a fair fight. It was not a pretty sight.

The irony is those three pumpkins may have been doomed from the start anyway. They barely survived the trip home.

We have a Wegmans grocery store nearby, where we bought those three pumpkins. If you have a Wegmans in your area, you know how ginormous they are. Many people are coming and going, with a front entrance that goes on forever. After we checked out a handful of groceries and the three pumpkins, we headed out the front doors and headed for the relative safety of the crosswalk. I say relative because everyone gets a little crazy whether they are coming or going from the Wegmans, driving by or walking to and from their cars, etc. And at the crosswalk, you can clearly see many drivers glaring at you as they reluctantly stop for the foot traffic to proceed.

I went to put my sunglasses on just as we got to the crosswalk…while awaiting those not-very-compassionate drivers to stop in both directions… so we could get to the parking lot. Two hands on the sunglasses. No hands on the cart. We were on a slope at that point, and I didn’t compensate for the additional weight of the pumpkins we had with us that day.

The shopping cart started to cross the crosswalk…without…me.

My wife gasped as I executed an impromptu jog to catch up to the cart. By the grace of the Holy Great Pumpkin himself, there were no cars immediately in the vicinity of the crosswalk and I regained control of the wayward cart. Little did we know the pumpkins wouldn’t be as lucky crossing paths again with the Grim Reaper just a couple of days later.

Ah yes, October. Days are getting noticeably shorter (am I the only person who likes that?). Leaves start to fall (they usually all wind up in our yard even though we have no trees). Air feels crisper (the air where I live, at least).

The following represents a handful of entertainment items I’ve noticed are on the way in October. As always, please share your comments on these (good or bad – this is a safe space!), and most definitely let me know anything you might be looking forward to.

October 3 – The Good Doctor returns on ABC – My wife is always down for watching medical shows. I’m not a big fan of them, in part because of the great lengths shows like this now go to show as close to an actual surgery as possible. It’s very hard for me to sleep after being deep inside a chest cavity late at night.

October 4 – The First To Die At The End is released – A prequel to the best-selling They Both Die At The End, Adam Silvera writes a new tale regarding the new app named Death-Cast, which promises it can predict the date of your death. When strangers meet, their lives are forever altered when one gets the call from Death-Cast…the other doesn’t. Didn’t read the first book, but might give both a read now. The biggest complaint I have heard about the original novel was they both died at the end.

October 5 – Reginald The Vampire debuts on Syfy – My wife and I are suckers for anything Syfy puts out there, aside from the relatively-new Chucky series and reruns of their “classic” Sharknado movies. I myself have never connected with the Chucky vibe, and my wife would rather be married to Chucky than watch shark movies. Sharks are her kryptonite. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t real sharks. Trust me, it doesn’t matter.

October 6 – Walker returns on The CW – We are huge, fanatical fans of The CW’s recently-concluded Supernatural series and Jared Padalecki, who played Sam Winchester on that show, is the lead character on Walker. This show is similar to Chuck Norris’ Walker, Texas Ranger in name only. I like Padalecki, but I’m not sure yet if I like his acting choice-post Supernatural.

October 6 – Walker: Independence debuts on The CW – Even my wife agrees the last show that needed a prequel was the above-mentioned Walker. It’s only been on for two freakin’ seasons. I will say this show will feature a good leading lady in Katherine McNamara, a star on Freeform’s Shadowhunters, as well as a co-star on The CW’s Arrow when that show was winding down. I’ll watch the first episode and see what kind of world-building they do.

October 7 – Amsterdam debuts in the theatres – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Robert De Niro. Yes, please. Loosely based on a true story, it follows three friends in the 1930’s who saw a murder, got framed for it, and now are the prime suspects. With this cast, I am all in.

October 7 – MLB Playoffs start…NHL Regular Season starts – I remember as a little kid coming home from school as soon as possible to watch playoff games, especially when they involved my favorite childhood team (aside from the Phillies), the Oakland Athletics. Not a bad team at all to be rooting for as a child, as they won three straight World Championships from 1972-74. The Phillies may yet find their way into the playoffs this year (courtesy of Major League Baseball adding an extra Wild Card berth). The chances for the Flyers to win a Stanley Cup this year? None. Playoffs? None. We won the Cup back in 1973-74 and 1974-75. I went into Center City for both of the massive parades honoring the team. Who knew they’d be the only parades? Sigh.

October 9 – Full Moon – Called the Full Hunter’s or Harvest Moon. I always pause to check out the Full Moon. The Moon has always fascinated me, and it’s hard to believe we landed on it in 1969 and still no one lives there. Then again, it’s even harder to believe we’re now going to spend a gazillion dollars to start going there again. I think my fascination with the Moon goes back to when I was a kid and somehow the Moon wound up representing Heaven to me. At least I got the direction right.

October 11 – The Winchesters debuts on The CW – You’ll recall I mentioned the TV series Supernatural earlier. That show ran for 327 episodes…a whopping 15 seasons. Now THIS is a show you can have a prequel for. It will tell the early stories of John & Mary Winchester, the parents of Sam & Dean, who Supernatural was all about. Jensen Ackles, who played Dean is – along with his wife – an executive producer of this new series. Jensen will also be narrating this show. His time invested behind the scenes and his active participation on the show has we fans of Supernatural very hopeful the spirit of the original series will be honored and extended within this prequel.

October 14 – Halloween Ends debuts in the theatres and on Peacock – The 1978 original film for me is a cinematic classic. The director, John Carpenter, is one of my all-time favorites. In 2018, a reboot of the Halloween franchise (for the umpteenth time) provided the first film of a promised trilogy. I thought that movie modestly captured the spirit which made the first film successful, and I was ok with it being made. It was good enough I thought they should just forget the idea of making the next two movies and just call it a day. Unfortunately, the second film released last year was a complete and utter failure for me. I think it is an embarrassment to the franchise. I do hope that – as this new release is named – Halloween Ends.

October 18 – The Last Chairlift is released – John Irving’s first novel in seven years deals with a skier who becomes pregnant after competing in the National Championships in Aspen. She returns to New England and becomes a ski instructor, raising her son Adam in an unusual manner. As an adult, Adam travels to Aspen looking for answers in the hotel he was conceived within. The main themes here are sexual politics, a love story…and a ghost story.

October 19 – NBA Regular Season starts – Our 76ers will most definitely make the playoffs again this season, but it is hard to see them winning the Eastern Conference and getting to the Finals. That being said, I don’t have an opinion yet who will be the last teams standing at season’s end. Do however keep an eye on those Cleveland Cavaliers. No, they did not get Lebron back again. They’re going to be just fine without him. My sleeper team in the NBA this season.

October 21 – Black Adam debuts in the theatres – Dwayne Johnson is as big (literally) a movie star there is, but will he be believable and welcomed as a DC Comics mega-superhero? We shall see. I like Dwayne a lot and am hoping he and this film do great things. The Peacemaker series with John Cena recently turned out well for DC. Maybe the Black Adam movie will do the same.

October 21 – Taylor Swift’s Midnights drops – I am not a Swiftie (even though she’s from nearby Reading PA), but I will take note if any notes on this new release resonate with me. I will tell you her ten minute song and short film All Too Well is one of the very best musical concoctions I have heard and seen in the past year. She performed it on Saturday Night Live last Fall and just crushed it.

October 21 – Hallmark Christmas 2022 Readers here may recall my admitted weakness for having Hallmark Christmas movies on as we begin Christmas prep. I’ll be honest, I more often steer towards their older films made before the Hallmark “formula” became a standard for all their movies…which some folks legitimately can find repetitive. Some of the earlier entries took a much bigger creative swing and were a bit less predictable. Hey, Hallmark storylines and families aren’t anything like I’ve ever experienced, but I guess that’s the appeal.

October 22 – World Cup Alpine Skiing begins – This sport may have to rethink its locations as snow continues to disappear around the globe and man-made snow becomes ever more challenging to maintain. I never learned how to ski, but I always wanted to (still do, but the wife just shakes her head). As a kid I loved taking in skiing during the Winter Olympics, and have been hooked on watching it ever since.

October 30 – The White Lotus returns on HBO and HBO Max – The first season of this series had a super-great cast, but to me came across as slow and plodding. And then the finale came and it was – wait for it – slow and plodding. This show has garnered wide critical acclaim, but to me Season 1 was just a slow burn of a show that never got hot, and its finale left me ice cold.

October 31 – Halloween – Loved this holiday as a kid, and I do appreciate it even more as an adult. It’s great to see what characters come up to the front door for their treats. In addition, my wife does not enforce the cut-off number Mom did on candy consumption Halloween Night.

Happy October!

 

Pictures Courtesy City of Salisbury MD/The CW

TMI

Even after all these years, it is still one of those life events I can recall fairly easily.

And after all these years, the event isn’t over just yet.

In August of 1978, I started attending Penn State University’s Capitol Campus (now known as Penn State-Harrisburg) in Middletown PA for my junior year of college. I was majoring in a specific degree program there for Humanities-Communications.

Capitol Campus served at that time as an alternative for juniors, seniors, and graduate students who either did not want to attend PSU’s State College PA Campus (which you know as simply Penn State), or who wanted to attain one of the specific degree programs the Capitol Campus offered. The campus (to this day) resides less than ten miles from Harrisburg, the state capitol. It is located on the site of the decommissioned Olmsted Air Force Base, of which many buildings were ready-made for becoming part of a collegiate setting when it first opened for business in 1966.

But more importantly, its location while I was there was near an Arby’s restaurant, which stayed open late night to accommodate its proximity to starving college students. A true win-win.

Wednesday March 28, 1979

Classes were set to resume the following week after the school’s spring break. I was waiting at the Harrisburg train station at 6:30 am, listening to my car radio while waiting to pick up my friend John. John had gone home to Western PA for the break, and needed someone to take him back to campus as he did not have a car at the time.

I heard the local radio DJ announce there was a “site emergency” at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant but it was under control. He read it between songs matter-of-factly much like an update on traffic or weather. It literally went in one ear and out the other.

Capitol Campus sits only about three miles from TMI, whose “smokestacks” you can easily see from several parts of the campus. Its proximity to where I going to continue my education didn’t even register in my mind when I first went to visit the campus…certainly not like that Arby’s did.

I picked up John shortly after the radio announcement and we returned to campus. I didn’t even mention it on the way back. As the day went on, periodic reports on both radio and television were now waffling a bit as to whether or not any actual radiation had gotten out, but the main takeaway continued to be everything was just fine.

Which was quite fine with those of us already back at school, because we were in full-on chill mode since the first classes were not for a few more days.

Thursday March 29, 1979

Spades is a card game of which I am told is somewhat of a “descendant” of Bridge (which I have never played). The object is to bid your hand as accurately as you can, with trump cards being from the suit of Spades.

Our dorms played a LOT of Spades that year, and when the weather favored it, we liked to drag out a folding table and chairs to play outside. We even established a Spades league and kept track of win-loss records, overall points, etc. Regardless of our card-playing venue, adult beverages often made an appearance as well, which may have impacted some performances from time to time now that I think of it.

This Spring day was perfect for enjoying the outdoors and playing some Spades. We had a blast, and thoughts of being so close to Three Mile Island were miles away. Toward evening however, when watching local television reports it seemed to me there was still some major confusion between the operators of the plant (Met Ed), the state authorities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Federal government. There were many views as to what the actual status of the plant was.

I called my mother, asking her what she was seeing and hearing from our home just a couple hours east of Middletown. I told her we were experiencing some reporting confusion at our end. The term meltdown had started to be thrown around as what could have happened if the operators had not already gotten control of the situation. So, we all started to try to figure out what a meltdown was.  I can say those of us in the dorms started to have a few more conversations about TMI, and whether or not anyone knew the exact situation, wasn’t telling us the exact situation…a bit of suspicion and worrying had started.

Friday March 30, 1979

It was almost 11 am, and I was in class with about 30 other students. A woman came to the doorway, interrupted our class, and started to advise us the Governor had requested everyone stay in the building and close the windows.

It seemed like we arose from our desks as one, and walked right by her on our way out of the building. God bless that woman. She was just doing her job.

Most students I knew went back to the dorms and started watching television again, eventually seeing the Governor issuing an “advisory” for pregnant women and pre-school age children to evacuate within a five-mile radius of the plant, with evacuation centers to be set up. Schools were ordered to close.

Some of us by then had decided enough was enough, and if we lived close enough, we were going to go home for the weekend. There were a couple of students on our floor who were from out of state, but they decided to ride it out in the dorms. John was on the floor below me, and he decided to stick around also. I gathered up some things and left for home at around 1 pm.

Driving through Middletown to get out of town, I saw some folks outside their homes packing up their families as quickly as they could. That’s when it really hit me. As I turned onto the Interstate for the drive back, the gravity and seriousness of the situation was finally realized…from an admittedly selfish perspective at first. Would I EVER be able to go back there? What if I had to go elsewhere to continue my education? What of the friendships with those in the dorms?

And eventually, my concern widened to include everyone else involved. Heck, we only lived a couple of hours away. My thoughts turned to…would my friends and family at home even be far enough away from whatever this was?

After a weekend of sitting on pins and needles, it seemed like all the players in this saga eventually got back on the same page, and any potential disaster had been avoided. We returned to class a week or so later.

Several weeks after returning, we had a couple of residents whose farms sit within a couple miles of the plant visit one of my classes to discuss their experiences post-TMI. They indicated health issues for both their families and their livestock. Around the same time, the state of Pennsylvania and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission set up a trailer in Middletown. They invited anyone who was within three miles of the plant to be tested for radiation exposure. Since we “qualified,” five of us got together and went down to be tested. The test was simple in execution…you took off your shoes and any metallic items, and got into what I would call an eight-foot long steel-like bathtub. An arm above the tub scanned your body up and down a couple of times…and that was that. We were told we’d get our results in the mail in a few weeks.

The school year was over and I remember getting the envelope when it arrived at my home. It was a certificate from both the state and the NRC indicating the test found I had no elevated levels of radiation.

That being said, the two spaces assigned for signatures from each entity were both unsigned.

It was and continues to be my real life X-Files. A situation where I didn’t know who to believe then, and I still don’t now. There are still books being written and documentaries being made. Last week, the current owners of Three Mile Island applied to the NRC to take the “next step” towards decommissioning the reactor which failed us all back in 1979.

It has been 43 years and there is still “clean-up” to be done.

I’ll never feel sure about what the true story is regarding how bad it could have been at TMI.

Nor do I know if this story will ever end.

 

Pictures Courtesy Penn State-Harrisburg/Smithsonian Magazine