Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Eulogy for Ruby

My mother, Ruby, died three years ago today, at the age of 102. A micromanager to the end, mom reminded me the day before she went into the hospital for surgery that if something went wrong, she expected me to write and deliver the eulogy at her memorial service. I'm sharing it here in the hope that someday, one of her future descendants will find this post floating somewhere in cyberspace and will realize why he or she loves to read, is fanatic about puzzles, can talk with anyone about anything, and intuitively knows that, when life knocks you down, you pick yourself up off the floor and look toward the sun. 

There are a lot of sad people here today. That's OK.

It’s OK to feel sad for ourselves, because Ruby was a huge presence in our lives.

But she wouldn’t want us to feel sad for her. As my mother reminded all of us many times, she lived a wonderful life. A life as rich and as long as hers is something to celebrate, not to mourn.

That’s why we are here – to celebrate her life, and to give thanks she was part of ours.

So let’s start at the beginning of it, 102 years ago. Woodrow Wilson had just been inaugurated for his first term. The radio was 10 years in the future and women didn’t yet have the right to vote when she was born on April 3, 1913.

Her parents allowed her brother, Homer, and sisters, Margaret and Lucille, to name her. They named her Ruby.

She started school in Mineola’s one-room schoolhouse the day she turned six.  In those days, students were required to memorize long poems. More than 90 years later, Ruby could still recite many of those poems verbatim.

She had a happy childhood. She rode her horse … swam in Loutre Creek in summer … skated on it in the winter.

She went to Montgomery City High School, which she loved. She had to move in with her grandmother and aunt – there were no school buses to take her back and forth.

In 1931, the year she graduated, Ruby won the Missouri State High School Extemporaneous Speaking Championship. She had hoped to go to college but there was no money for it. The Great Depression was on. Her father had lost the family house and the bank he worked for had closed. Grandpa, grandma, Ruby and Betty Jo, her little sister, had to move into the basement of the bank building.

That fall, mom went to visit a friend who lived in a nearby town, High Hill, where they attended a baseball game. One of the players was a young man named Bud Dryden. Bud asked if he could drive her back to Mineola. She said yes.

Despite his driving – my father was a terrible driver – Ruby fell for Bud and he fell for her. Both were intelligent and ambitious. Both had high hopes for the future. Both wanted to get out of their little towns. Both were eager to get out of their family’s homes where they were stuck because of events beyond their control. Both were early supporters of FDR, who was promising to lead the country out of the Depression.

They were married on June 25, 1933. They honeymooned at Bagnell Dam – there was no Lake Ozark yet.

That fall, Bud and Ruby moved to Davis, a tiny town of 30 people – mom was able to name every one of them 80 years later – where dad and his brother, Jarrett, were to run a country store.

Now, Davis wasn’t exactly what the newlyweds had in mind when they were planning their future. The day they moved to town, workers were removing the train tracks – not a good sign. There was no electricity, no running water, people in Davis ate squirrels and possum. It was like moving back into the nineteenth century.  But the country was stuck in the middle of the Great Depression. Davis was the best they could do  … so they made do.

In July, 1935, Ruby and Bud were blessed – and I do mean blessed, mom told me the night before she went to the hospital what a blessing he had always been – with a baby boy, Jerry, who they and everyone in town doted on. He was the only child in Davis.

In October, 1941, they lost almost everything they owned in a flood.

In May, 1942, mom and dad were blessed again … this time with a girl, Judy. They couldn’t have imagined what a blessing Judy would turn out to be.

In 1944, they moved to Auxvasse, where dad had purchased a general store. Both became active in the community … and Dryden’s Store prospered.

In 1951, mom was surprised to learn she was pregnant again. In November, she gave birth to me. For 63 years she persisted in introducing me as her “change-of-life” baby. She was 38. 

In 1957, the Dryden family grew when Jerry and Nancy got married. It expanded again in 1958, when Ellen was born, making Ruby a grandmother at 45 … in 1960 with Julie …and in 1963 with Marilyn.

In 1964, Bud became sick. He underwent surgery for cancer in December, the same week Ruby’s mother died. Mom always said that, when her time came, she wanted to go the way her mother did – she was only sick for one day and didn’t suffer.

Dad died in February, 1966. Ruby was just 52.

She grieved, of course. And at first, she was overwhelmed. But she didn’t sit around and cry, “Why me?” That wasn’t in her nature.

It didn’t take long for her to realize that, for the first time, she was in charge of her future. No longer was she someone’s daughter or wife. She was an independent woman, with the ability and need to make her own decisions. And that is when the Ruby most of the people in this room knew and loved, came into her own.

The year after dad died, mom took Judy and me on a trip to the other side of the world. We stopped in Hawaii to see Betty Jo and her family, then continued on to Okinawa, where Jerry and Nancy had been stationed. We toured Tokyo. Jerry arranged a trip to Taiwan. That was, when you think about it, an incredibly gutsy move for a small town housewife who had never traveled west of Kansas City.

In 1968, Jerry was sent to Vietnam. Mom bought the house across the street for Nancy and the girls to live in. She loved having them close by. And she decided the house was a good investment – she was teaching herself about business. Dad had never trusted the stock market. Ruby saw that times were changing, and sought out a stockbroker who taught her about the market, which she continued to follow right up to the end. When I was in college, mom had emergency gall bladder surgery. The last thing she told Judy and me as they wheeled her into operating room was, “Call the broker and buy 100 shares of Kroger.”

In 1970, mom's first grandson, John B., was born. A year later she got another one – Jay. And in 1974, Jimmy.

During the 1970s, Jerry and Nancy lived in Germany. Mom made two trips to see them, and took side trips to several other countries. She loved being exposed to new cultures … new foods … new scenery. Several years later she took a trip to England and Scotland.

In 1976, the year after Judy and I married, Ruby moved to Columbia. She wanted to be near (her daughter) Judy and her family. And she saw it as a new challenge, an opportunity to live in, what was for her, a big city – a city full of young people. Mom always loved being around young people.

Her fourth granddaughter, Katie, came along in 1979.

One day in 1981, mom took Jay and Jim to the barber shop where she ran into a high school classmate, Bill See, who had lost his wife. They started courting – people born in 1913 called it courting, not dating –   and in January, 1982, they were married.

Mom and Bill enjoyed each other’s company. They went to restaurants and movies, played bridge, and traveled to Florida, California, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, New England and Nova Scotia. Bill even took her on fishing trips with his family.

Ruby’s fourth grandson, Ben, was born in 1983. And her final grandchild, Stuart, in 1986, a few weeks after Bill died.

At 72, Ruby was a widow again. But she wasn’t the kind of person who wasted time feeling sorry for herself.

She had always been a big reader but from the time Bill died to the day she died, she read constantly – two, sometimes three books a week. She preferred non-fiction, especially biographies. Mom always felt bad because she didn’t go to college. She shouldn’t have. There isn’t a history professor in this town who knows more about America’s presidents than Ruby did. She read biographies of every one of them – even Millard Fillmore.

She continued to play bridge. She said the secret is to memorize every card that has been played. That was easy for Ruby. She had a photographic memory.

In 1998, when she was 85, she had open heart surgery. At first, when she learned she needed it, she didn’t want it; she said she had already lived a long life. But Bill’s son Mike, a doctor like his father, who always took wonderful care of Ruby, explained that if she did, she might have many more good years and for that advice, all of us will always be grateful to Mike because it gave us 17 more years of Ruby.

Jerry made sure she did the rehabilitative exercises the doctor had ordered … which she hated.

Ruby wasn’t big on physical exercise; her brain was the muscle she was concerned about exercising. She played Scrabble. She worked her Sudoko puzzles. And she became proficient on the computer which Jay and Joe and Mary Lou taught her. Ruby wore out two Macs … and loved her iPad.

As she moved into her nineties, Mom did everything she possibly could to continue living in her own house. She had the washer/dryer moved so she wouldn’t have to climb stairs, and the bathroom remodeled so she’d be less likely to fall.

She was proud of her independence, and we were, too. By the time she was 98, she had been living alone for more than 40 years.  

In November, 2011, mom was the victim of a violent home invasion, and Judy walked in during the invasion and received the same treatment. But Judy, who had always been there for mom, showed what she was made of that day. She somehow escaped and called the police. I will always believe she saved our mother’s life. If she hadn’t done what she did, we would have been gathered together three and a half years ago under vastly different circumstances and believe me – we couldn’t have possibly felt like calling it a Celebration.

I think those of us who loved Ruby took the home invasion harder than she did because it took away from her the thing we knew she valued the most other than her family – her ability to live on her own.

In the wake of that, mom decided to move to Lenoir (an assisted living facility). It was a decision we all hoped she’d never have to make.

But, typical of Ruby, she found there was a lot about it she liked. She enjoyed the dining room with the white tablecloths and salad bar … going to the beauty shop on her own … going to movies … playing duplicate bridge, which she almost always won … and to the library.

Mom had always had lots of company and that continued here. People gravitated to Ruby because they wanted to spend time with her. She was well informed and up to date. Her family and visitors couldn’t believe her memory – it was sharper than any of her children’s and, probably, her grandchildren’s. She told great stories. And she was always willing to listen, and to offer advice. So many of those who came to spend time with her – Joe and Mary Lou …Marybelle and Juanita …Rex and Lou ….Harrell ….Barbara and Phyllis…Carolyn – were the children of friends and relatives she had outlived. Ruby was a link back to them. She loved you all.

Ruby lived life on her own terms right up to the end. She was the one who decided to have the surgery. She knew there was a chance things could go wrong but I don’t think any of her family members ever seriously considered it. After 102 years, we thought Ruby was immortal. But … she wasn’t. We take comfort knowing she got her wish – she left this world like her mother did -- sick for one day, and one day only. She didn’t suffer or linger.

When I was a kid, I didn’t realize that my mother was anything special.

It wasn’t until after dad died and, especially, after I became an adult, that I began to appreciate how unique she was.

Ruby loved to learn and considered every day an opportunity to improve herself. Most people, at some point, stop trying, because they’re afraid they will fail. Not her. She took a daily online quiz and was disappointed in herself when she got a wrong answer. How many 102-year-olds do you know who do that? She challenged herself to keep learning and, amazingly, she retained everything—and I do mean everything. Her brain was like a computer hard drive.

Ruby was practical. She didn’t overcomplicate things. And she wasn’t extravagant. If there was a new book she wanted to read, she didn’t run out and buy it. She called the library and got on the waiting list.

She had common sense and used it.

She had a wonderful sense of humor. She loved to laugh.

She could find joy in the simple things most of us take for granted. In the changing of the leaves in the fall, in the birds outside her window.

She overlooked faults in people. Ruby expected more from herself than she expected from others.  

If she had been born today, Ruby would have been a success at any career she chose. She took up writing in her eighties, and became an excellent writer – she could have been a journalist. She would have been a great stock broker. Or real estate agent.

She was an optimist. Sure, there were times she felt down but mom always – always – could find something to look forward to. My sister says that mom always looked toward the sun, a beautiful way to express her outlook on life.

She didn’t complain. I called her almost every day. I could tell, from the sound of her voice when she picked up, how she was feeling. When I’d ask her, on days she wasn’t feeling well, how she was, she would change the subject. She didn’t want me to worry.

She was tenacious. She fought hard to live life on her own terms, and she succeeded.

She made great pies and breads and the most incredible light rolls you ever tasted.

She was refreshingly unconventional. She dressed like a teenager. She wore Keds and jeans and pedal pushers. She ate Special K for breakfast … and poured Half & Half on it.

She loved her 22 descendants unconditionally … was proud of each and every one of us … and worried about all of us … from Jerry to Teddy.

She was our Queen Victoria, the matriarch of our family, the glue that held us together.

A ruby is a gem that emits a beautiful light.

It is the color of love. It is durable.

It is rare. It is precious. The longer you have it, the more it grows in value.

Her brother and sisters couldn’t have possibly known the day they named her Ruby … that they had chosen a name that would come to suit her perfectly.

Thank you for coming to honor her today.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ebbing, Missouri. One more reason Hollywood is ebbing into irrelevance

I used to enjoy going to the movies but I rarely go these days. It’s not that I don’t like the experience. I actually enjoy sitting in a big dark room in a reclining leather chair eating cold popcorn from a cardboard container the size of a galvanized steel tub.  

It’s because 99 percent of the movies that come out of Hollywood are drek. The writers, directors and actors who inhabit it have lost contact with the people who buy the tickets and make their comfy lifestyles possible, the 99 percent of Americans who live in the wasteland between JFK and LAX.

I can’t remember the last time I came out of a movie knowing I had been entertained rather than having had my intelligence insulted.

That is why I didn’t run to my local multiplex when the much-touted Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was released last fall. Based on glowing reviews from critics whose judgment I’ve come to doubt, I suspected it would represent too much of a commitment in terms of time and money and would ultimately disappoint, so I waited until it was available on Amazon. My wife and I watched it last night.

The plot in one sentence: A woman (Frances McDormand) is at wit’s end because the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the man who raped and murdered her daughter, so she buys three billboards demanding to know why.

Critics hailed Billboards as a black comedy. The comedy, if you can call it that, is at the expense of the local yokels including a racist deputy who makes Barney Fife look like Stephen Hawking; a dwarf used car salesman; a dentist who attempts to torture McDormand as punishment for buying the billboards (think Laurence Olivier drilling Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man); and McDormand’s ex who is shacked up with a 19-year-old bimbette. The directors gratuitously threw in two African-American characters who, unlike the white residents of Ebbing, are wise and good. 

Having read the premise, I had no expectations that the script would satisfy. My sole interest in Ebbing was to see how Hollywood portrayed a small Missouri town because I grew up in one.

Ebbing, it turns out, is surrounded by mountains. Missouri doesn’t have mountains. Yes, there’s a region known as the Ozark Mountains but those aren’t really mountains, they’re just hills and not particularly high hills at that. Five minutes into the movie I hit “pause” to look up where it was shot. It was actually filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains which are honest-to-God mountains.

If the director felt strongly about using that particular setting, he could have changed the name to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, North Carolina or, for that matter, West Virginia. One would think that, at some point in the location-scouting process, someone – a summer intern perhaps – would have been assigned to find out if Missouri has mountains but that, clearly, never occurred to anyone.

As a boy, I loved Gunsmoke, a TV series set in Dodge City, Kansas, a state as flat as a pancake. Gunsmoke frequently featured Sheriff Matt Dillon as he pursued bad guys into the nearly mountains. At eight years old, I knew from studying maps that there wasn’t a mountain within 300 miles of Dodge and it bothered me. At least the plots of Gunsmoke were satisfying.

The plot of Ebbing, Missouri isn’t. Like so many creatively bankrupt movies that simply run out of steam at which point the director yells “cut,” it doesn’t even have a proper ending. In the final scene McDormand and the idiot deputy are in a car headed to Idaho to kill a guy the deputy thinks may have had something to do with the murder. But then they admit they don’t even know if they want to continue the journey. At that point the screen fades to black and the credits roll.

The credits are the only reason I can even give Ebbing one star because at least the typography is nice.

Friday, April 13, 2018

I'm scannable and my wife is from Hannibal but don't worry, I'm fine

My wife has a new car. She didn’t want it. 

She was perfectly happy with her 2005 car that had only 65,000 miles on it. She loved everything about that car —  the powder blue paint that matched her eyes, the classic lines, the white leather interior, the polished wood burling on the dashboard.

For the last couple of years I suspected the car’s days were numbered and kept suggesting we at least consider replacing it but she said no, it was the best car she ever had and that men glanced over at her whenever she pulled up next to them at stop lights. (I found that disturbing but she apparently liked all that attention.)

Shortly before Christmas the car started having issues. I took it to a repair shop and laid out $3,400. The mechanic assured me it was good for another 13 years.

But one day last month it started making ominous noises. I drove it over back roads  I didn’t want to take it out on the highway — to the shop and was given an estimate of $5,000 for repairs, roughly the same amount as the Blue Book value of the car had it been fully functional. My wife reluctantly agreed it made no sense to spend that much money.

The car was shimmying like an Ikette, the brakes were shot, black smoke was billowing from the exhaust, the tires had suddenly lost all their tread and I think (but am not sure — I’m not mechanically inclined so I don’t understand these things) the engine was about to fall out. The mechanic told me to be extra careful driving it to the dealership to trade it in because it wasn’t safe.

En route to the dealer’s that afternoon we smelled smoke. We pressed on. A half mile before we arrived I removed my foot from the accelerator so we could coast to a crawl before turning in since there were no brakes. As we pulled into the parking lot the car gave a loud shudder, the engine shut down and, I assume, at that precise moment its soul ascended to car heaven leaving its beautiful powder blue body behind, looking as perfect as the day it came off the assembly line.

A couple of hours later, we drove out in a new car. My wife’s beloved car fetched $1,500 as a trade-in and that was generous given the amount of work it needed. I’m sure it was flat-bedded to the junkyard that afternoon.

The new car is fun to drive. Its electronics are as sophisticated as a 787’s, but the body is slung low — really really low. You can’t just slide into the driver’s seat, you have to squat alongside it, then move slowly and carefully across the seat to fit behind the wheel. A driver five feet tall would have no problem but I’m a six-footer. (Full disclosure. I’m five eleven and three-quarters but have always lied on driver’s licenses and passport applications. Six feet sounds much more impressive.)

Which brings me to the night before last. We had taken the new car out to dinner. I had pasta, my wife had chicken, the car had 92 octane. I said I wanted to drive home because I rarely have the opportunity to ride in it, much less drive it. As I was getting into the driver’s seat, I didn’t squat low enough and POW, smashed the crown of my head — hard — against the roof. For a moment I saw stars and thought I was going to pass out, the pain was that bad. 

I couldn’t sleep that night because I had a terrific headache and kept reaching up to touch the knot growing atop my head, which is now roughly the size of Taiwan. 

Yesterday afternoon, remembering news stories about famous people who’ve died after seemingly innocuous head injuries, I insisted my wife drive me to the ER, where, at check-in, I was given a wristband that identified me not as Tom Dryden but as a bar code. The bad news: I’m no longer a person. The good news: I can be scanned by a Target cashier. 

Speaking of scans, a CAT scan revealed I was fine. No bleeding to the brain. 

But this morning, nearly 36 hours after my stupid accident, my head is still THROBBING. No amount of extra strength Tylenol will make it stop. And I can't remember the point I was going to make when I started writing this post. 

I am almost sure I did have one. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine's messages from the heart

I would like to thank the following for their thoughtful Valentine messages and generous gifts I found when I logged onto my email this morning. You have warmed the cuckolds of my heart and reminded me of how much you truly love me. I am putty in your hands. for letting me know I can pay as little as $8.50 a day when I park my car at one of their off-airport long-term lots and take my Valentine to Paris, the most romantic city in the world.  It hadn't occurred to me but now that I know it will cost so little to leave my car in your capable hands, we're on a 7 pm flight (changing planes in Atlanta, of course). 

Uber for suggesting that I can win my date's heart by taking her on a special ride in an UberBLACK car with a "professional driver." I love that idea -- she was just saying she'd like to go to Costco this afternoon and my car's gas tank, as it often is, is on empty. I don't know if it has enough to make it to the gas station for a fill-up, so an UberBLACK ride will be most appreciated.

Jet's Pizza, for creating a Valentine's Day-only heart-shaped pizza with premium mozzarella. I was planning to take her to her favorite restaurant but I know she'll prefer this. Perhaps we can pick it up on the way to the airport, take it with us on our flight, and make all the passengers around us envious. 

Total Wine for the coupon redeemable for $10 off $50 worth of rosé wines, the perfect alternative to a bouquet of roses. (Very, very clever -- give your social media copywriter a raise!)  Unfortunately, my Valentine only drinks Sauvignon Blanc.

TeamTile for inviting me to save 35% on the perfect gift, a set of four "Tile Trackers" that will enable my Valentine to affix a tracking device to items she loses often. Oh wait, my Valentine has never misplaced anything, except for a pair of Pan Am tickets in the late 1980s, a loss I remind her about often when she complains that I have misplaced my sunglasses, keys, wallet, cellphone, reading glasses, etc., for the fifth time that day and she is SICK TO DEATH of having to STOP WHAT SHE IS DOING to help me find them and WHY ON EARTH HAS SHE PUT UP WITH THIS CRAP FOR 40 YEARS, WHY DIDN'T SHE MARRY A MAN RESPONSIBLE ENOUGH TO KEEP TRACK OF HIS OWN THINGS?  Hopefully she will read this and buy them for me. My Valentine never pays retail for anything so darling, if you are reading this, ask me for the special promo code. I'm sure they'll let you use it.

Fresh Market for putting together a dinner for two I can cook for my Valentine  -- our choice of filet mignon or North Atlantic lobster tails, asparagus tips, Yukon Gold potatoes, 12 chocolate dipped strawberries and a dozen roses (flowers, not wines), all for $49.99. Nice try but I am allergic to strawberries. Besides, we're having a Valentine-shaped pizza.

May your day be filled with love. And savings!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lessons learned

Several years ago, my mother, who was 100 at the time, told me she was reading a book about Millard Fillmore. "Why?" I asked. “Because it's important to learn something new every day,” she replied.

Mom was, of course, right. So here are three lessons I learned yesterday.

1. Don’t eat an entire "Fun Size" bag of Baby Ruth bars in one sitting. When you are in a long checkout line at CVS, realize you skipped breakfast and lunch, and impulsively buy a bag of candy, telling yourself you are entitled to it because, after all, you haven't consumed as much as one calorie all day, do not eat the entire bag on the drive home.  Your 10-year-old stomach could handle all that sugar.  Your sixty-something stomach can't. Lesson learned.

2. Never start a speech by using the word "cockleburrs." I am running for the Board of Directors of my community association. My stump speech begins with a quote from an old-time politician who said,  “I come from a state that raises corn, cotton and cockleburrs and I don’t believe anything anyone tells me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.” I  go on to say that is why Missouri is known as the Show-Me state and that, as a fifth-generation Missourian, I want  the current board to show me why its members have made some questionable decisions.

Last night I was speaking to a group that was gathered around a pool, an hour-and-a-half into Happy Hour. "What's a cockleburr?" a well-served man with a New York accent yelled. It went downhill from there. Lesson learned. 

3. Buy the expensive doggie poop bags. Do not buy the cheap ones made of thin plastic just to save a few pennies. There is a reason they cost less. Lesson learned.
Have a great day. Get out there and learn something new.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Meet the candidate

Every politician needs to be seen holding
a baby. So here I am holding one,
my grandson Teddy. 

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I detest politicians.  So it may come as a surprise to learn that I have become one.

No, folks, I’m not running for Congress, the state legislature, city council or even dogcatcher. (I'd just bring all those dogs home anyway.) I’m running for the Board of Directors of the private community where my wife and I live here in Florida.

We love this tropical paradise of 3,300 homes spread across 2,400 manicured acres. It has three golf courses, two country clubs, a creek where residents can kayak surrounded by gators, and a marina with a fleet of sailboats. I took lessons to become a certified sailor but dropped out the day I slipped off the boat and slashed my feet to ribbons on a bed of oyster shells. (Never understood “port “or “starboard” anyway. Why not just say left or right?)

We have a dozen Har-Tru tennis courts, pickleball courts (it's the latest craze in Florida, sort of a cross between tennis and ping-pong) and bocce (my idea of a contact sport). There are a couple of fishing piers, a butterfly garden and a fitness center with state of the art equipment, not to mention clubs for book lovers, bridge and poker players, MahJongg enthusiasts, gardeners, cyclists, singers, artists, thespians (my favorite word), environmentalists, bird watchers and other clubs I can’t name off the top of my head.

We even have our own private island in the Gulf of Mexico, a swath of sugary white sand studded with beach umbrellas. From a chaise underneath one, there’s no better place to lose yourself in a book or watch the pelicans circling over the gulf as they look for their lunch.

With the exception of a handful of malcontents  – the kind of people who, as my mother used to say, won’t be happy when they get to heaven – the folks who live here tend to be happy campers. Their happiness turns to panic when a hurricane is headed our way but – knock wood – that only happens every 10 years or so. 

Most residents are retired. Having kept their noses to the grindstone for most of their lives, they want to worry about nothing more than their tennis serve or where to meet for dinner. You can strike up a conversation with someone you meet on the boat to the beach and, next thing you know, you’ve made plans to get together for happy hour. It’s that kind of place. I thank my lucky stars every day that I live here, and hope to continue until the grim reaper comes to take me away.

We bought our first house here in 2007 but didn’t become full-timers until 2013 when we sold our Connecticut house. The next year we bought a larger place to accommodate our new grandchildren on the rare occasions they come to visit.  

I was vaguely aware the community was governed by a Board of Directors but never knew anyone who served on it, never attended a meeting, and never cared to. Everything seemed to be running smoothly and everyone was playing well together until a year and a half ago.

At that time, a newly elected Board, the majority of its members endorsed by a group of 400 or so residents who had initiated a lawsuit against the developer, took control following a contentious campaign. The residents' group had filed a lawsuit to prevent the developer from building more high rise condos. Zoning regulations prohibit the condos, so suing to stop the company from putting up towers they can't build anyway made little sense.

Two lawyers, including one hired at the recommendation of the residents' group, advised the previous Board not to get involved in the lawsuit. The majority of the current Board ignored that advice, filed a cross-claim and now we're in litigation up to our eyeballs. It could drag on for years.

Concerns about the suit – specifically, whether the community should join it or not, the fact the Board jumped into it despite promises they wouldn't, and the legal risks we may be facing if we lose – have pitted neighbor against neighbor and turned Board meetings into scream fests of the type one would expect to witness at a WWF wrestling match.  Nasty emails fly back and forth and you have to be careful what you say in front of people you don't know in case they feel strongly one way or the other and fly off the handle. If you want to see old people behaving like petulant children, this is the place to be.

The lawsuit has become a matter of pride for those who want to continue pursuing it.  The Board members who voted to join the suit are counting on most residents not taking the time to learn the details about it because the matter is mind-bogglingly complex and nuanced.

Most folks I know don't want the community involved in the suit.  Having watched the Machiavellian maneuvers of those who got us into it, neither do I. And I'm pissed at the tactics a group representing less than 15 percent of homeowners have used to turn this idyllic community into their own personal litigation playground. 

A Board election is about to be held. For months I hoped someone who sees things my way would step up to the plate and run against two incumbents who voted to join the suit, but, as I write, only one other candidate has announced her intention to do so. So I’m throwing my hat into the ring. Winners will be announced at the end of March.  

Last time I ran for anything I was a high school sophomore, running for Student Council. Fifty years later I’m a candidate once again.

A campaign, as I have been reminded after all these years, is a massive commitment of time and energy. There are “Meet the Candidate” parties to attend, speeches to give, and campaign materials to write, design and distribute, not to mention an avalanche of phone calls, texts and and emails every day. Because most residents are retired, there aren’t many babies to kiss at campaign events. Maybe I will ask my son and daughter-in-law to lend me one of theirs so I can look like an authentic politician.

If, by chance I win – and I am going to give it my best shot – I will be up to my eyeballs in details and meetings for the foreseeable future.

But I’m ready for it. Bring it on.  

I was getting tired of having all that fun anyway.                

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Buyer beware of fake gift cards

I am not a gardener. Any plant I gaze upon shrivels and dies within minutes. Any plant I actually touch shrivels and dies within seconds.

Naturally, my oldest son loves to garden and has a green thumb. Every Spring, he heads to a Home Depot Garden Center to load up with plants, mulch, fertilizer, beanstalks or whatever it is that gardeners buy. So for Christmas, I gave him a Home Depot gift card.

I purchased it at a Staples store where it was hanging on a rack near the cash register. The rack contained hundreds of cards issued by Staples, chain restaurants, other retailers, iTunes, Visa, American Express, etc.

In my first draft of this post, I went into excruciating detail nobody in their right mind would want to read, explaining how I wound up buying a fake card.  It is a long, convoluted and, to me at least, intriguing story that involves criminal acts and behavior on someone's part but I can't tell you who that someone is because nobody knows.  I'll be happy to email it to you if you really want a blow-by-blow. Assuming you don't, the paragraph below will suffice.

The gift card I bought had no bar code on the back. I would not have been able to see that unless I removed it from the package it came in and examined it before I bought it. It did, however, have a die-cut window on the back side of the package that revealed a "real" bar code printed on a plastic tab. Once scanned by the Staples cashier, an account was created that told Home Depot there was a $100 credit. Unfortunately, someone, somewhere, got that credit and has most likely used it by now. Instructions said to remove the plastic tab after purchase. I not only removed it, I threw it away. Luckily, I kept the cash register receipt showing the digits associated with that code. I placed the fake card in a tin box decorated with flowers and gave it to my son. He picked up on the missing bar code instantly.

I took the fake card to my local Home Depot store, which said it wasn't their problem. So did the manager of the Staples store. I was unable to reach a human when I called Home Depot headquarters. I left a message on voicemail but nobody called me back.  Because I had used a credit card, I called the issuing bank to dispute the charge. The agent assured me I wouldn't be held responsible. It certainly wasn't the bank's fault either but they guarantee customer purchases so the bank is the real victim here.

Why am I telling you this? To warn you to be cautious when buying gift cards. I’ve since read that gift card fraud is rampant but the companies that issue them are keeping it quiet because gift cards,  despite all that fraud, are highly profitable. Some articles advise buying gift cards directly from the store/restaurant/etc. where they are to be used, not at a “big box” store or supermarket that sells card brands other than its own.

Gift cards are easy to buy and give but ...  beware. Make sure to examine any card you purchase from one of those hanging racks before you leave the store. That means you will probably have to remove it from the packaging and examine the reverse side which doesn't always show through.

And now I’m off to buy a “real” Home Depot gift card to replace the fraudulent one I gave my son.

Spring is just around the corner and, knowing him, he is already planning his garden.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

America's pickiest dachshunds review Cesar's gourmet dog foods

We have owned been owned by seven miniature dachshunds. Each of them, including our current wieners, 14-year-old Billy Ray and four-year-old Roo-Roo, have eaten Cesar’s gourmet dog food twice a day. I could have probably bought a Mercedes – heck, a Lamborghini  – for all the money I’ve shelled out for Cesar’s over the years.

Cesar's is formulated specifically for little dogs that tend to be picky eaters and, more importantly, for their indulgent owners who believe their pets need a wide range of flavor choices in order to have enough energy to make it through to another day of lounging around on their best upholstered furniture, looking cute. To that end, the brand is constantly introducing exotic new varieties into its product line-up. Some survive. Some disappear from the shelves after only a few months.  

Over the last week I served nine varieties that were new to Billy Ray’s and Roo-Roo’s finicky palettes. This morning the three of us sat down to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about each of the varieties they tried.

TJD: So guys, what did you think of the Cesar’s Scramble with Turkey, Spinach and Cheese in Gravy you had for breakfast yesterday?

Billy Ray: The ingredients list says it contains dried cheese but doesn’t specify the variety. I detected manchego but based on Roo-Roo’s breath after inhaling a bowlful, I’d have to guess the primary cheese is limburger.

Roo-Roo: I think the mystery cheese is more likely a Stilton or perhaps a Double Gloucester but whatever it turns out to be, we both agree that this will be our “go to” Cesar for those casual Sunday poolside brunches we enjoy so much during Florida’s winter months.

TJD: I was happy to see you lick your bowls clean when I served Cesar’s Rosemary Chicken Flavor with Spring Vegetables the other night.

Roo-Roo: I don’t much care for chicken -- I generally prefer darker, richer, more robust meats like beef, lamb, even duck -- but a perfect pinch of rosemary brings out the flavor of what is otherwise a bland, insipid form of protein in this variety.

Billy Ray: This one’s a keeper. It is almost – note I say “almost” – as delicious as my beloved Costco rotisserie chicken. Personally I would have preferred fewer green peppers and more yellow ones because they’re rarer and more expensive but for now I’ll be happy to eat this at least once a week.

TJD: You walked away from the Cesar’s Country Stew with Vegetables. How come?

Billy Ray: Neither of us could figure out what country they’re talking about. Uganda? Bolivia? Papua New Guinea? Your guess is as good as ours but it certainly didn’t resemble any stew we’ve ever been served including leftover Dinty Moore.

Roo-Roo: Yes, this one disappointed on multiple levels but if it is the last can in the pantry, I suppose I can somehow hold my nose and get it down without gagging.

TJD: What did you think of Cesar’s Harvest Potluck with Turkey in Gravy?

Roo-Roo: We never know what to bring to a potluck dinner – not that we have ever been invited to one but in case we are we have spent hours discussing what we could contribute – so we were elated to discover this variety. When our friends ask for the recipe, and they will, we’ll simply smile and say it’s a family secret.

Billy Ray: The gravy could be a tad thicker but we’re not going to complain about the one shortcoming in a near perfect dish that’s particularly enjoyable when paired with a slightly chilled Fiji water.

Roo-Roo: I would pair it with Evian myself but this would be delightful even with plain old tap water, which I am told some dogs in less fortunate countries have to drink.

TJD: I’m almost afraid to ask about the Cesar’s Meat Lasagna. You obviously hated it.

Roo-Roo: It was so awful that, for a nano-second, I actually wished for that repulsive Purina Pro Salmon & Rice dry stuff they used to dish up at the kennel where, prior to joining your family, I was employed as a stud although, as you know, I was never called upon to actually perform because my father, who was somehow considered a better specimen of a longhaired piebald dachshund than I am, was always up to the task whenever stud services were required, which is why I’m in therapy today.

Billy Ray: In addition to some creamy imported ricotta and fresh basil, this dish would have benefited from San Marzano tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes would have certainly made it more authentically Italian than the “tomato powder” that comes in thirteenth on the list of ingredients. Cesar’s chefs missed the gondola on this one.

TJD: You both begged for more when I served up the Cesar’s Hearty Chicken, Noodles and Vegetable Dinner.

Billy Ray: I was less than enthusiastic when you placed a bowl of what I always considered to be peasant food in front of me but I found this dish to be surprisingly tasty. The noodles could have been a bit more al dente but other than that, it was delicious. Who would have guessed I’d prefer something this banal to lasagna?

Roo-Roo: I absolutely loved it. It made for a comforting, satisfying meal after a hard day chasing lizards around the lanai and barking at golfers.

TJD: What about the Cesar’s Beef Stroganoff?

Roo-Roo: We’ve always loved the story you tell about your forty-fifth birthday dinner in an elegant restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the middle of a blizzard, where you ordered the only two things you could say in Russian – stroganoff and Stolichnaya. Ever since we heard it, we’ve been anxious to try this dish, but now that we have tasted Cesar’s take on stroganoff, I’d have to rate it merely okay -- a C plus, perhaps a B minus.

Billy Ray: A dollop of sour cream and a dusting of paprika would have made it a solid B in my book but for now I agree with Roo.

TJD:  You wouldn’t take as much as a bite from the Cesar’s Beef with Broccoli and Brown Rice. How come?

Roo-Roo: It’s Cesar’s interpretation of a classic Chinese dish but we found the concept incredibly offensive.

Billy Ray: The Chinese eat dogs. Enough said.

TJD: Last but not least you tried Cesar’s Grilled New York Strip Steak Flavor with Potatoes and Summer Vegetables. What did you think?  

Roo-Roo: Neither of us could turn up our noses fast enough when you served us this dish in which beef comes after chicken, chicken liver and something called “animal plasma” -- we don’t even want to know what this is -- on the ingredient list.

Billy Ray: The summer vegetables were uninteresting  – potatoes, corn, green beans, carrots and peas. Endive, artichokes and/or summer squash would have contributed some much-needed texture.

TJD: Thanks, guys. I'm going to the store in a few. Anything you want me to pick up?

Billy Ray: For the holidays I want to try Cesar's new Turkey, Green Beans & Potatoes Dinner. 

Roo-Roo: As long as you're in the aisle, you might as well grab me a coupla cans of Cheesy Chicken Pasta Dinner in Sauce. Want me to write that down so you don't forget it? 

TJD: Got it.