Friday, November 23, 2018

The Grill of Your Dreams

We just had a new gas grill installed.  Here is the first page of the owner's manual that came with it.

Congratulations on your new Tropic Chef grill!

We know you can’t wait to start grilling delicious meals for your family and friends, but before you do, please take a moment to read these critical safety warnings. Failure to follow these warnings may invalidate the warranty.

  • Fill tank with propane only. DO NOT fill with gasoline, lighter fluid, nail polish remover, rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, turpentine, linseed oil, hydrogen, butane, methane, ethylese or vodka.

  • Grill is for OUTDOOR USE only.  Do not operate inside house, condo, apartment, trailer, barn, airplane, helicopter, office building, store, restaurant, hospital, church, synagogue, mosque, outhouse, car, bus, van or truck.

  • DO NOT ignite grill while connected to an oxygen tank.

  • NEVER allow children to play around, or atop, hot grill except for kids likely to grow up and vote Republican if you don't stop them now.

  • God knows I’d love to be writing the great American novel — that’s what I always intended to be doing at this point in my life — but no, I have to spend my day writing instructions for morons like you who have done all of these things and worse. For example …

  • When igniting burners, MAKE SURE grill lid is open and that no cats have crept through opening at the back and are sleeping inside.

  • DO NOT light farts if you smell propane leak. 

  • DO NOT operate grill during tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, blizzards, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or other adverse conditions. If any of these conditions occur, please turn off fuel supply and seek shelter.

  • Any reference within this manual to wieners refers to sausages made by Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Ballpark, Nathans and other manufacturers, NOT dachshunds or genitalia you have cut off your cheating husband in a fit of drunken rage.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy your new grill!

Monday, November 12, 2018

These diamonds aren't forever

Darling, will you marry me?

The highest temperature in the nation yesterday, 89 degrees, was reported in Ft. Myers, two towns north of here. Sunday was a darn near perfect day. Low humidity. Blue skies. Fluffy clouds. A slight breeze. 

I would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for this damn sinus infection that made its first appearance in 1987 when we lived in Connecticut, and flared up every year thereafter until we finally had the sense to get out of there once and for all in 2013. Until two weeks ago, it had only reappeared once, in 2016, and that was after a flight.  

But two weeks ago we flew home from Iceland — Keflavik to JFK, JFK to Atlanta, Atlanta to Ft. Myers. Two days later I woke up feeling like someone had broken into the house overnight and filled my head with wet concrete. I’ve been taking antibiotics ever since but this iteration of my 31-year-old infection is particularly tenacious. I’m almost sure it flared up because of the flying, not because of the cold we encountered in Iceland, where I wore a stocking cap everywhere. (My mother, who always warned her children to keep their heads covered whenever it was 60 or below, would have been proud.) 

Why did we go to to icy-cold Iceland in late October rather than in summer, when the daylight lasts nearly around the clock and the high averages a balmy 55? Because we wanted to see the Northern Lights. The odds of seeing the aurora borealis are better during Iceland’s winter, which basically lasts from September through May.  Alas, we didn’t see them. The first four days were rainy, with low clouds that would have prevented us from seeing them if they had they been dancing directly overhead. For the last three days the conditions were ideal — no clouds — but the lights, which are tempermental, were no-shows. We had a wonderful time anyway.

The highlight of our trip was Diamond Beach, the most bizarre and beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

Located on the southeast coast about 250 miles from Reykjavik, it’s a jet-black beach studded with thousands of chunks of ice, from as small as a couple of carats all the way up to the size of a Mac truck. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear they were diamonds.

The diamonds come from the Breiðamerkurjöjull glacier, about a half mile from the beach. As it retreats (e.g. melts) chunks of ice fall into a lagoon directly behind the beach. The chunks float around the lagoon awhile — a day, a week, a year — and eventually move through a river out into the Atlantic.

The sea, which is warmer than the lagoon — about 45 degrees— melts some of the ice, then washes the chunks up onto the beach. Some of the chunks are crystal clear, like diamonds. Others retain the weird blue color of the glacier that birthed them, a color I’ve only seen in nature one other place — in my four-year-old grandson Teddy’s ice blue eyes. For the first time, once I saw those glacier-blue chunks, I truly understood what “ice blue” means.

We went to the beach twice — once late in the afternoon as the sun was setting, and again the next morning. None of the diamonds we had seen 18 hours before were there on our second visit. They’d either melted or been carried back to sea at high tide. 

On our second visit we saw a young man kneeling in front of a young woman, presenting her with a real diamond. Diamond Beach is the perfect place to get engaged through I imagine any girl, after seeing the diamonds on the beach, would complain that hers isn’t big enough. 

Here are some photos for your viewing pleasure. If you enjoy them, by all means go see Diamond Beach for yourself. Iceland is easy to get to (five hours from New York), and there are several low cost airlines offering nonstops they have trouble filling up in winter. I’ve seen flights advertised for as little as $99 each way.

But don’t put it off. There’s a volcano under the glacier that’s overdue to erupt and once that happens, Diamond Beach may well be gone.

Real diamonds are forever but these gems aren't. 

Jökulsárlón Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður. The first word is the name
of the lagoon into which the icebergs fall from the glacier
(shown above). The last is the name of the nearest town.  I have
no clue what the middle one means. But these three words, together, according
to my iPhone, denote the location where this shot was taken.

The beach is covered with black volcanic sand. 
And, of course, diamonds.

Lots and lots of diamonds. Thousands of them.

This photo will give you an idea of how huge
some of these icebergs are.

Looking west. That's a small part of the glacier in the upper right.
(Damn, writing this post was fun. I should have been a travel writer.
Is it too late to launch a new career at my age?

 I wonder if I could get free trips from, say, the Iceland Tourist Bureau? 

My bride with her diamond
 Chunks of glacier ice the size of Ford F-150s
The only other place I've seen that shade of blue in
nature -- in Teddy's ice blue eyes. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Turning back time

For the first seven years of our married life, until we had our first son, we went to the movies almost every weekend. We would look in the newspaper, see what was playing, then choose the one that appealed to us most because there were almost always multiple movies we wanted to see.

We rarely go to the movies these days. It's not that we don’t want to. It’s because 99.9 percent of movies are written for people at least 40 years younger than us. Hollywood doesn’t give a damn about people our age. We are not the future. The last movie we saw in a theater was Dunkirk.

Yesterday my wife said she’d like to see A Star is Born, the third remake of the film about a famous guy who discovers an unknown with talent, gives her opportunities to shine, and marries her. As her star ascends, his declines, sending him into despair. Just before the movie ends, he self-destructs, leaving her in the final scene to proclaim her undying love.

I agreed to go but only because we had gift cards we needed to use before they expired. 

I never saw the original version. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out when it was made (1937) and who starred in it (Frederick March and Janet Gaynor).

I saw the first remake (1954, James Mason, Judy Garland) as a kid, on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies.

The second remake, with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, was released in December, 1976. We were newlyweds, living in Chicago. We saw it on a Sunday afternoon. When we came out of the theater it was snowing hard. 

We lived in a tiny apartment on the eighth floor of a 30 story-high rise overlooking Lake Michigan, a building featured in the opening credits of the Bob Newhart Show. It was, supposedly, where Bob and his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) lived. Whereas Bob and Emily had entertaining neighbors, including Howard, the pilot,  the actual building was filled with elderly Hungarians who had fled the 1956 revolution, cooked cabbage that stunk up the hallways, and were obsessed with cleanliness. The white-haired lady across the hall, Angelina, scrubbed her front door every day.  She once knocked on our door to point out that the marble saddle under it had a streak of dirt that needed to be scrubbed away that very minute. 

We had moved to Chicago a few months earlier. I had a job as a writer for a Chicago-based marketing agency and my wife was a development writer for a university on the south side. Our apartment was furnished with hand-me-downs. Most movies we saw were matinees -- they were cheaper. That was the only year of our married life we had just one dog, Sybil, a dachshund/corgi mix whose ears were as big as her face. For the next 42, we had two, sometimes three, dogs.

The latest remake of A Star Is Born features Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. It wasn’t, as I assumed it would be, terrible, but it wasn’t great either. Lady Gaga can certainly sing. She’s very appealing and likable but, as we reclined in our leather chairs in the darkened theater, I wasn’t thinking about the plot. I knew what was coming. My mind kept wandering back to what our lives were like the last time we saw “Star” when, as 25-year-olds, we had no idea where we going much less how we’d get there, and asking myself, “If I could turn back time to the last time we saw this movie, would I?” 

Chicago was God-awful cold so the next year I finagled a transfer to the agency’s New York office. After a couple of months I quit that job, and landed a job at a big ad agency.  A year later I moved up to a bigger agency.

In 1983, we had our first son and moved to a condo in the ‘burbs. Three years later son number two came along and we bought our first house. In 1989, I started my own agency. Sometimes business was great. Sometimes it wasn’t.

But it all, eventually, worked out. Our youngest went off to college in 2004, we retired in 2010, moved to Florida full time in 2013 and became grandparents in 2014. Right now, for the first time since 1976, we are back to one dog, Rupert, a long-haired dachshund. Surprisingly, we are comfortable having just one though I can’t speak for him. He seems sad, no matter how much attention he gets, and believe me, he gets plenty.

This morning, having had the benefit of an extra hour of sleep because America reverted to standard time overnight, I woke up knowing the answer to my question. 

If given the opportunity to turn back the clock to 1976, knowing what I know now, I would do it. In a heartbeat.

But if I had to turn it back without the benefit of the lessons I’ve learned along the way I wouldn’t, because I might well make some poor choices I didn't make the first go-round.  

I have made lots of choices. Some were dumb. Some were smart. Some were risky and, in retrospect, foolhardy. Others weren’t really choices at all, just lucky breaks.  But I am the sum total of the choices I have made. We all are. 

When you are young, if you are fortunate and not everyone is, you have lots and lots of choices to make. Some big. Some small. 

One thing I am realizing with each passing day is that the older I get, the fewer of them I have. 

I wish I had more choices to look forward to making, but I’m going to have to be content with the ones I still have and to be grateful for the ones I have been given and made.  

Especially the bad ones, because those are the ones that taught me the most.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

The last jeans I'll ever buy

I am oblivious to fashion trends. It’s not that I don’t care how I look. It’s just that I don’t care enough to make an effort to stay abreast of what’s in and out of style. 

If I’m going to a wedding or funeral, I look online to see which of my two suits I should choose  — the one with the wide lapels or the one with the narrow lapels. Same with ties. I have to look it up to find out which of my two neckties I should wear.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I wear shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. My closet contains only a few pairs of long pants and all of those, with the exception of a pair of jeans, are tropical weight khakis.

This week my wife and I are flying to Iceland, a jeans and flannel shirt kinda country where everyone looks like they just came back from hiking a glacier, climbing a volcano or harpooning whales. "You’re going to need new jeans,” my wife said. “Yours look ridiculous.”

She’s right. I bought them in 1997 in South Africa. The label on the backside says Woolworth’s — a department store there, not the dime store you may remember.  Like me, they are showing their age — frayed bottoms, some mysterious stains, a missing belt loop.  And they don’t fit any more. Since I bought them I have lost my ass twice — once in the stock market crash and again sometime over the last ten years. The flesh on my back side has for some inexplicable reason disappeared so where-ass I used to fill the jeans out, I no longer do. There’s lots of extra fabric that sags over the area where my butt used to be.

So yesterday I went to the outlet mall to buy a new pair. I figured it would take, at most, 10 minutes because, unlike clothes that go in and out of style, jeans are jeans, right?


My first stop was at H&M. I read somewhere that H&M, a Swedish chain, is a good place to buy jeans. And it is, provided you're a guy with a waist the size of my miniature dachshund’s. There were racks and racks of jeans, with signs designating various styles — Skinny, Super Skinny, Slim, and my favorite, Skinny Carrot. The men browsing those racks were all a) young enough to be my grandsons and b) disturbingly emaciated. I was in and out of that store in two minutes flat. 

I went to Eddie Bauer. I wear size 36 jeans so I tried on a pair that size. Two of those people from “My 600 Pound Life” could have easily fit into them, with room left over for Michael Moore. I tried on a size 34. That pair could have accommodated two Moores. Even the 32s,  a size I haven’t worn since my twenties, were way, way too big. I suppose I could have continued to try successively smaller sizes until I found a pair that actually touched my hips but I’d lost faith in Eddie Bauer jeans so I left.

The Nautica store featured jeans that, like H&M's, are made for men with eating disorders. 

The jeans at the Bloomingdales outlet contained more holes than denim. Even I know that’s the style but I don’t get it. Totally impractical for someone traveling to the Arctic in late October. 

I stopped at Lucky. The designations there were as bizarre as H&M's — Skinny, Slim, Drainpipe and Athletic Slim, “for athletic slim men or those who want to be.” I want to be athletic and slim but don’t want to pay $79 for a pair of jeans I’ll wear for a week then consign to the back of a guest room closet. It’s a sure bet none would have fit anyway.

Brooks Brothers had nothing in in my size. 

Leaving that store, I rounded a corner and was relieved to see a Levi’s shop. I had never noticed it or I would have gone there in the first place.

Last time I bought Levi's, there were, if I remember correctly, two styles — 501s with a button fly and 505s with a zippered fly. I read years ago that west coast men prefer button jeans. The rest of the country prefers zippers.

Levi's no longer has two basic styles.  The selection was overwhelming. In addition to the 501s and 505s, there are now (I looked ‘em up when I got home) 502s (Regular Taper Fit), 510s (Skinny Fit), 511s (Slim Fit), 512s (Slim Taper Straight), 513s (Slim Straight), 514s (Straight Fit), 517s (Boot Cut), 519s (Extreme Skinny), 527s (Slim Boot Cut), 541s (Athletic Fit), 545s (Athletic Fit Utility), 550s (Relaxed Fit), 559s (Relaxed Straight), 560s (Comfort Fit as opposed to Discomfort Fit) and 569s (Loose Straight, not for Loose Gays or Loose Transgenders). 

A clerk asked if I needed help. “Yes,” I said. “What do you have for someone my age that will make me look virile, hip and outdoorsy while disguising the fact that my butt is missing?”

She pulled a half dozen pair off the shelves and handed them to me. Over the next hour I tried on — I kid you not — 14 pairs. Not only did they all fit differently, all of the 36 jeans except the 501s were way too big. Even many of the 34s were too big. When I asked why, the clerk explained that most jeans these days are made with denim that stretches. That’s why the jeans at Eddie Bauer and, to a lesser extent, at Levi’s, didn’t fit like the traditional stiff jeans I was accustomed to.

I finally found a pair of 505s — the same style I wore back in college — but softer, made with stretch material, that looked halfway decent. Sized 34/30, they’re a bit too big in the waist and about a half inch too short in the leg but I was, at that point, desperate to get the hell out of there.

“Do you want give me your email so I can send you a coupon for 20 percent off your next purchase?” the cashier asked.

“God no,” I replied. “These are the last jeans I’m ever going to buy.” 

And that’s the truth. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A visit to North Korea (with palm trees)

A poster featuring Fidel in the Havana City Forest:
"That human life be preserved! That children and young people enjoy it
in a world of justice. That parents and grandparents share with them 
the privilege of living!" 
Eight of us were sitting around at Happy Hour last month when out of nowhere one of us— I don’t remember who — mentioned cruising, travel or Cuba. I said I had that very morning received an email from a travel agency promoting four-day cruises to Cuba from Miami being offered at dirt cheap prices in September.

“Let’s go,” someone piped up. Everyone agreed that was a swell idea. All of us were, at that point, on our third drink. Florida bartenders that time of year tend to be extremely generous; like the Maytag repairman, they yearn for company so the drinks were extra large. I promised I’d dig out the email and send everyone details.

Within 24 hours all of us were booked, along with three more couples. The next week another couple returned to town and they booked, too. 

And that is how, on Wednesday morning, my wife and I, along with 14 friends, found ourselves on a luxury liner pulling into Havana harbor. 

The view from our ship as we sailed into Havana harbor.
Note the crumbling buildings.
I’ve traveled to every continent (except Antarctica) and visited many places that can fairly be described as third world including Namibia, Colombia, Mozambique, Morocco and Mississippi. 

Cuba makes all of them look like Beverly Hills.

While it’s impossible to judge a country on a quickie visit — we were only docked in Havana for 20 hours where my wife and I along with another couple took a six-hour tour conducted by a guide we had found on Trip Advisor — it’s safe to say all of us were impressed but not favorably. 

The country is beyond poor — the average citizen earns $30 a month. The government controls almost every aspect of their lives but has, since the death of Fidel, loosened up a bit — Cubans can now buy their own homes. That may seem like a move in the right direction but the fact is, the new owners have to maintain their homes out of their $30 paychecks, so home ownership isn’t a prescription for prosperity as it is in other societies. Roads, sidewalks, buildings, even the terminal at which we docked, are crumbling. All the businesses are government owned. The tourist industry is controlled by the Cuban military, a non-sequitur our guide likened to a branch of the government responsible for education controlling sewage disposal. 

Havana, as you know, is known for its ancient American-built cars. I figured those were the exception — a gimmick to attract car aficionados — but no, they’re the rule. Once the Commies took over in 1959, private ownership of cars was forbidden unless you already had one. That is why, today, Havana’s pot-holed roads are filled with finned, chrome-laden cars from the 1950s and late 1940s. All have been repainted many times —often in their original, distinctive, two-toned colors, and refitted with new engines. 

Our wheels for the day: a 1954 Buick with a
Mitsubishi diesel engine

The 1954 Buick in which we toured was equipped with a Mitsubishi diesel engine. The ’58 Buick friends were driven around in had a Mercedes engine. There are thousands of those clunkers in Havana alone and many more, I assume, throughout the country. Most of the original owners have died but the government, in its generosity, allowed them to pass the cars on to their descendants. Any car built after the revolution  — the Kia and Hyundai taxis and the two newer Mercedes I saw — are either owned by the government or by diplomats who find themselves unfortunate enough to be assigned to a country that has been described as “North Korea with palm trees.” 

Vintage cars (and one government-owned Mercedes)
at Revolution Square
Our guide, Raul, met us in the square opposite the dock. An articulate, outgoing guy in his late twenties who speaks near-perfect English, Raul told us he once worked as a government tour guide. He explained that passengers on our ship who took guided tours offered by the cruise line were, unwittingly, being shown exactly what the government wants them to see. Raul took us places most tourists don’t see including a “rations store” where citizens can redeem coupons for small bags of rice, beans and the occasional roll of TP when available. The shelves were mostly bare.

He took us to the National Hotel, perched high atop a hill overlooking the sea, which opened in 1930. Mob boss Meyer Lansky in the mid-1950s convinced the Battista government to cut him in as an owner. Castro seized it in 1959. 

In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the army built a bunker in the hotel garden from which volunteers scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for U.S. warships. The bunker now houses a small museum dedicated to the crisis. I asked Raul which side won. “The Soviets,” he said without hesitation. “Khrushchev had to remove his missiles from Cuba but Kennedy had to take American missiles out of Turkey.”  I had forgotten that if, indeed, I ever knew it. I was 10 years old at the time so I can’t say I stayed abreast of, or understood, every development, but Americans are taught that JFK heroically stood his ground, refused to blink, and the Soviets were forced to remove their intercontinental ballistic missiles from Cuba and schlep ‘em back to Russia, so we won.  When I got home I looked it up and Raul was right. JFK caved as much as Khrushchev. 

The National Hotel
The bunker was the highlight of my trip because I’m convinced the Cuban missile crisis is the primary reason we Baby Boomers are as screwed up as Generation Xers and Millennials like to claim we are. Many of us were in grammar school. Watching Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports about the crisis, in which the two superpowers threatened to blow each other and the rest of the world to oblivion, was traumatic enough. More damaging to our tender young psyches were the drills during which our teachers ordered us to practice hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from the fallout the mushroom clouds would inevitably generate. We may have been young but we weren’t stupid. We watched Mr. Wizard. We knew the radiation would melt us like the milk chocolate in the hand that wasn’t holding M&Ms.  

And so, expecting to die tomorrow, we have gone through life denying ourselves nothing, knowing there was a good chance we’d be dead before we had to pay for it, which is why many Boomers who would like to retire haven’t saved enough and will have to work until they fall dead from exhaustion rather than fallout.

For six hours Raul and his driver, a silver haired gentleman who spoke no English, took us around town. The cost of the tour was $130. Raul told us they had driven to Havana that morning from a town two hours away and would be making the return trip once our tour was finished.  The two men traveled four hours and spent six additional hours with the four of us. Assuming they split the $130 in half, they each earned a whopping $1.62 per hour from each person in our party and that doesn’t even include the cost of fuel which, Raul told us, comes from Cuba’s BFF, Venezuela. We tipped him generously and stopped en route back to our ship to buy a “Cuba” t-shirt  — but the vendor only had a dozen or so and, of those, only one fit and it was a misprint.  

I promised Raul I would write a glowing review on Trip Advisor, in the hopes future travelers will book tours with his company and ask for him by name, and he said he would be grateful. I wrote it last night. If you’d like to read it, and find out more about what we did and saw, click here:

Enough about our trip to Cuba.  There’s something I want to say to many of my well-intentioned friends and family members who think socialism is swell.  

On paper, the concept is kind and commendable — a government ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are taken care of —but, ultimately, the 90 percent who have the ability to take care of themselves in the first place wind up being oppressed, and the 10 percent who don’t would have been better off being taken care of by a democratically elected government.  

I am ashamed to admit I voted for a socialist, Bernie Sanders, in the 2016 Florida Democratic primary. I’m not really a Democrat. Neither was Bernie. I’m not a Republican either. I’ve switched parties four or five times and now firmly believe both are controlled by lunatics so there's no reason to keep switching. When I registered to vote in Florida, I had to choose one so I said I was a Democrat, which gave me the right to vote in that primary. I knew Sanders couldn’t possibly beat Hillary, whom I have always detested which is why I voted for him, but if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t. (I wouldn’t vote for Hillary, either. I would write in Rupert, my dachshund, who is not only more more personable but has a better grasp of basic economics than either of them.) For those of you about to delete me from your Facebook friends’ list, I didn’t vote for Trump in the general election either. Once again I wasted my vote, casting my ballot for one of the third party candidates — my way of expressing contempt for both Hillary and Trump and their wacko extremist parties. 

Take a look at Cuba, a country trapped in the 1950s. Then consider the failed satellites of the USSR which, now that they are capitalist, are becoming prosperous. A couple we traveled with own a vacation home overlooking the Adriatic in Croatia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) and report they can’t find workers to renovate it — the economy is that strong now that the socialists are gone. 

Friends and family members excited by the socialist candidates who will be featured on some ballots in November’s election believe these candidates have good intentions, are compassionate, and want to help. Most likely they are, but every socialist-leaning American voter would do well to pay a visit to Cuba to see what socialism has wrought before pulling the lever.

Socialism isn’t pretty in Cuba, Venezuela, China or North Korea. It wasn't pretty in the countries that comprised the Soviet bloc. It would be fatal here and it’s madness to even flirt with it, no matter how much you want to let the world know you’re a good person who cares about injustice which, I’m convinced, is the one and only reason to vote socialist in the first place. 

Our own government is a mess right now but Americans have an uncanny ability to self-correct their mistakes and we will someday get it right. 

Let's hope Cubans someday get that right, too

A Che Guevara poster : "It is proposed to all young people ....
to be essentially that (which) approaches the best of humanity."

Thanks, Google Translate. This one makes such little sense that our
guide/interpreter couldn't even translate it with any degree of accuracy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Nike could have done so much better

As a marketing professional, I am disappointed about Nike's decision to make Colin "Take a Knee" Kaepernick the face of its latest advertising campaign.

The objective of the campaign, which features Kaepernick's mug and the headline, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." is clear: To generate buzz for the brand by choosing a spokesperson who can offend as many people as possible.

Given its objective, Nike could have done so much better. For instance, the company could have chosen:

Adolf Hitler:  He sacrificed everything---Germany's reputation for the next millennium, not to mention six million Jews, to make sure the world knew where he stood.

Charles Manson: He sacrificed his freedom and the freedom of his followers who gleefully butchered nine people whose murders, he believed, would precipitate a war based on the Beatles' song, "Helter Skelter."

Jeffrey Dahmer: He raped, murdered, dismembered and ate 17 people between 1978 and 1991 and tragically sacrificed his life when he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate.

Jerry Sandusky: Sacrificed his career as an assistant coach at Penn State when he was charged with 52 counts of raping young boys.

Josef Stalin: As General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, it is estimated he sacrificed up to 15 million people who were executed or died in his gulags so he could prove that Communism was swell.

Osama bin Laden: Under his expert direction, the lives of 2,996 men, women and children were sacrificed on 9/11 to prove he was a man of God.

Mark Parker: Nike's CEO, who green lighted the Kaepernick campaign, may not know it yet but he has sacrificed billions in shareholder value, and will most likely be sacrificing his job.

Friday, August 31, 2018


Last Saturday, I sat on the front porch of a log cabin where, nearly 200 years ago, a decision was made that determined my future.

The cabin, a few miles south of Abingdon in southwest Virginia, was built in the late 1700s by my great-great-great grandfather, David Dryden.

On that porch, high on a hill looking across a river into the mountains of Tennessee, two of David’s sons, Nathaniel and Thomas, decided in the late 1820s to strike out for the west. (Okay, I don’t know for sure they held this discussion on the porch — maybe they held it around the gigantic stone fireplace in the kitchen or as they were fishing on the river or hunting bears or whatever — but I'm telling this story and I’ve decided they were on the porch. If you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to read this.)  

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Nate: Bro, we Drydens have been moving west since the 1600s — from Scotland to Maryland, from Maryland to Philadelphia, from Philly to southwestern Virginia. It’s time for us to continue the family tradition. Where in the west should we go?

Tom:  Let’s pick a place that, two hundred years from now, will be as far as possible from a major airport so our descendants who leave the area will be inconvenienced to the max when they try to visit.

Nate:  Well, here’s a map of the new state of Missouri. Let’s move to the middle of that godforsaken place. No way there’ll ever be a commercial airport anywhere near that.

Tom:  Great idea. Our descendants will have to get to an airport an hour early, fly several hours into St. Louis or Kansas City, rent a car, then drive two or three more hours. It’ll take ‘em all day to get there!

And so the brothers loaded their wagons and moved to Missouri, putting down stakes two miles east of a Montgomery County settlement that was soon to be named Danville. 

The rest, as they say, is history: Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, begat Gilbert I, who begat Gilbert II, who begat Gilbert III, who begat yours truly. 

The view from the porch with the
Tennessee mountains in the distance.
David’s cabin is no longer in the family but the current owner, a sweet, white-haired lady named Betty, kindly allows his far-flung descendants to gather every couple of years to share Dryden stories and admire the breathtakingly beautiful place from whence we all sprang. Betty even made desserts for Saturday’s reunion, including a blackberry cobbler almost as memorable as the setting. Hanging in her kitchen are photos of Thomas and Elizabeth, taken around 1860, the oldest-known photos of any members of my family. They were given to Betty by cousin Leigh, who organizes the reunions, and Betty displays them proudly to show visitors the son and daughter-in-law of the man who built her home nearly a quarter of a millennium ago. 

This year’s reunion was sparsely attended. Only four of the 500 or so descendants who were invited showed up.  Little matter. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting relatives I never knew I had, was awed to tour my ancestral home, and hope someday to have the pleasure of sitting on that porch with the future of my branch of the family tree — my two sons and the two sons my oldest son has begotten, one of whom is named Isaac Thomas Dryden. He was named in honor of me.

I doubt my son knows this but my father always told me I was named after the Thomas who left Virginia for Missouri. And so, therefore, is the newest begotten Dryden son, Isaac Thomas.

He is still in diapers but it is my hope that someday, when he is an old man like his grandpa, Isaac Thomas will have the opportunity to visit that cabin and will experience the same reaction I had as I sat on its front porch and realized that, somehow, after all these years, I was home. 

My dad always told me, "If you're going to do something, do it right."
Maybe that's something that was passed down to him because David Dryden built his
two-story cabin right. Check out the way the logs are notched. No wonder his house still stands after 250 years.

Elizabeth (b 1802) and Thomas (b 1800) Dryden
crossed the mountains from Virginia to Missouri in 1829.
Their photos are displayed in the house his father built.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The silly (and almost tragic) saga of the hand-painted animal plates

I saw a news clip today about a quick-thinking TSA agent who noticed a smoking bag as a passenger was going through the security line at the Savannah airport.  A battery in a vaping device was on fire. It brought to mind one of my favorite family stories.

In the early nineties, my wife, two young sons and I flew to London for Thanksgiving. My wife, who has an eye for rare and beautiful things — which is why she married me —  spotted in the window of a china shop some colorful, whimsical, hand-painted animal plates. She announced they would look great hanging in our kitchen. There were, if I remember correctly, probably thirty or forty different plates in the series. She and the boys picked out 16 of them.

The shopkeeper wrapped the plates individually in newsprint, and placed them in two corrugated boxes he stuffed with excelsior to provide extra padding and keep them from jiggling around. He sealed the boxes with tape and wrapped twine around them to create handles.

The next day we went to Heathrow for our return flight to JFK. Back then, I was a United frequent flyer. This, of course, was when the friendly skies were still friendly — two decades before United started dragging passengers off planes and suffocating puppies. As a frequent frequent flyer, I belonged to the United Red Carpet Club. After check-in, we proceeded directly to the lounge where we placed our carry-ons, including the boxes containing the plates, on the floor, and headed for the free food. We didn’t notice we had placed one of the boxes atop a heat vent.

An hour or so later, as we were going through the security line, a fellow passenger noticed that one of our boxes was emitting smoke. The security agents went ballistic, ordered everyone to stand back, and pulled us out of the line, accusing us of trying to smuggle a bomb. I pointed out that if I were doing that, I wouldn’t be bringing my wife and kids, and told them the box contained plates. An agent ordered me to carry the smoking box into a nearby room and demanded I open it. 

The heat hadn’t ignited the excelsior but it was, indeed, smoking.  If we had boarded the plane with that box, the excelsior would have continued to smolder and would have eventually burst into flames — probably in the middle of the ocean. A jumbo jet would have disappeared and nobody would have known why.

But the cardboard box, amazingly, was just slightly charred so, once the security agents calmed down, we were able to repack the plates, wrapping them in dirty underwear from our carry-on bags, and allowed to board our flight. We placed the boxes in the overhead bin and settled in.

Halfway across the Atlantic a passenger opened the bin and the boxes tumbled out and crashed to the floor. We assumed all the plates were smashed to smithereens. When we got home, we were amazed to learn they had somehow survived intact.

For years the plates were displayed in our Connecticut kitchen and today hang above the cabinets in our Florida kitchen where almost everyone who sees them comments on them. We always tell the story of their bizarre journey to America, a tale I have now told for probably the 100th time. 

Postscript: As I was taking the above photo, my wife asked if I noticed anything different. Looking at the plates, as I have every day for twenty-some years, I realized there were a number of new ones. There are still 16 plates hanging there, but some I had never seen before.

A few years ago while changing a light bulb, the top of my ladder struck one of the plates.  It fell to the floor and broke into 100 pieces. My wife was heartsick. While the plates aren't particularly valuable, we love them, not only for the playful artwork but because of the story associated with them. She began scouring the Internet for a replacement and, months later, found one -- not the same one I broke -- at an antique shop in England which I dutifully hung in place of the one I had broken.

What I didn't realize -- and, knowing her as I do, shouldn't have been surprised to learn  -- is that she has continued buying more plates as she finds them online, one or two at a time, from individual sellers and shopkeepers on eBay UK.  She says she even struck up an email correspondence and friendship with one of the sellers, a woman who bought her plates the same time we did. My wife has been taking down old plates and replacing them with new ones for more than a year. I didn't notice. She now owns more than two dozen plates but there are still only 16 hanging in the kitchen. 

What'll we do with all those plates? The same thing we'll do with all the stuff we've accumulated over the years -- leave them for the kids and grandkids to deal with when we're gone. Not our problem.

In the meantime, they're kind of cute. And the silly saga continues.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Obituary: Billy R. Dryden, 8/22/03-7/20/18

Billy Ray Dryden went to be with Jesus on Friday, July 20, 2018. Moments after greeting him at the pearly gates Jesus is reported to have announced, “I can’t deal with this nonstop barking,” and took off for parts unknown.

Billy was born on Aug. 22, 2003 in Pomfret Center, Conn. On Nov. 22, 2003, he was adopted by Judith and Thomas Dryden but he rarely acknowledged his father; Billy was, heart and soul, from the moment he was placed in her arms as a two-pound puppy, his mama’s boy. Their love for one another was pure and absolutely unconditional. Billy could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. For nearly 15 years he was tucked under her arm 24/7 and, on the rare occasions she was out of his sight, barked hysterically, even when she tried to have some privacy in the bathroom. 

As those who knew him will attest, Billy was vocal. He barked at thunder. He barked at lightening. He barked at fireworks. He barked whenever the phone or doorbell rang. He barked whenever a phone or doorbell on TV rang. He barked at the pool man, the yard men, at postal workers and UPS/FedEx drivers. He barked at his neighbors George and Mary. He barked at children. He barked at adults. He barked at other dogs, at lizards on the lanai and he barked especially loud whenever his father attempted to hold a conversation with his mother.

He loved Costco rotisserie chicken, frolicking through the snow of his native Connecticut, and riding in the car where he always slept on his mother’s lap, the one time his parents could talk to one another without having to scream.

Billy was a hero. In 2007, he discovered that a miniature shark his human brother Stuart had adopted years before — a fish that was supposed to live for a year or two but was six years old at that point —  had somehow leapt out of the aquarium and landed behind a chair. Billy began barking. His mother took no notice since Billy always barked whenever she wasn’t holding him. His barking became increasingly agitated, as he tried to paw his way under the chair. She realized he was trying to tell her something, just like Lassie used to tell Hugh Riley and June Lockhart that Timmy had fallen into a well. His mother was able to pick up the shark with a spatula and slip it back in the fish tank. The shark, alas, suffered brain damage because, from that day until his death several years later, he could only swim counter-clockwise, but his life was saved thanks to the bravery and persistence of a nine-pound long-haired black-and English cream dachshund. 

Billy was predeceased by his dachshund sister, Bonnie, who tricked him out of his breakfast every day for 13 years by standing at the door barking, pretending to see something, which always made him run to the door where he would bark at nothing for 10 minutes as she doubled back and inhaled his food. Survivors include his dachshund brother, Rupert, whom he welcomed into the family last year and loved dearly; his mongrel Great Pyrenees/Greyhound bitch of a niece Topanga, whom he despised, especially after she tried to swallow him whole under the Christmas tree when he stole the toy Santa had brought her; his father; and the love of his life and reason for being, his mother. 

He was cremated and, at his mother’s request, the little lacquer box in which his ashes repose will someday be placed alongside her body in her coffin, so they can spend eternity the same way they spent their life on earth together—with him tucked safely under her arm.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In good hands

Recorded voice: You have reached the desk of Angela Lindstrom, claims adjuster. I am either on another call or away from my desk. Please leave your claim number, name, and a brief message.

TD: Hi, my claim number is 555123456.  I just got a letter saying you need some information in order to process my claim. Here goes:

My legal name is Thomas J. Dryden.

My social security number is (redacted).

Although I prefer wine to beer,  don't watch TV sports and if I miss a day shaving, nobody really notices because I've never had a heavy beard, my legal gender is male. Perhaps I should consider transitioning but at this point it doesn't really matter.

My date of birth is November 17, 1951. I used to regret that my mother couldn't hold out a few more hours because then I would have been the third generation of my family to have been born on November 18th, but, after all these years, I've decided the 17th suits me better.

The date of my accident was, well, nine months before November 17th, give or take a few days, so I'll have to say February 17th, 1951. My parents always said I was an accident. Dad was 44, mom was 38, they already had two kids and weren't planning on having any more. I like to think I was conceived on Valentine's Day.

If you have any more questions, let me know.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Shutter madness

October 5, 2017

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. You guys installed our electric hurricane shutters last year. The one over our bathroom window is broken. I pushed the button to lower it before the hurricane but the motor was dead. I got up on a ladder and took the cover off and was able to lower it manually, an inch at a time, but it took half the day. The room is now pitch black so I want to get this fixed as soon as possible. My number is 555-5555. Thanks.

December 1, 2017

Woman: Southwest Storm Shutters, this is Sara, how can I help you?

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. I left a message a couple of months ago but didn’t hear back. The motor on one of the electric storm shutters your company installed last year is broken. Could you send someone out to fix it?

Sara: I’ll have someone call you. Just a heads up, it may be tomorrow, we’re a bit backed up.

TJD: That’s fine, thanks. I’ll wait for your call.

February 12, 2018

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: Tom Dryden here, I’ve called several times. The motor on one of my shutters is broken. Could you please call me back? 

March 31, 2018

Sara: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. How can I help you?

TJD: This is Tom Dryden and this is the third or fourth time I’ve called about this. One of my shutters, the engine on it — you installed it two years ago — is broken.  Last time we talked you said someone would be calling but I never heard back. I need to have this taken care of. 

Sara: Nobody got back to you? I gave Don your message, he’s usually so good about returning calls, so I don’t know why he didn’t, but I’m sorry. I have your number. He’s out right now but I’m going to text him and he will get right back to you.

April 25, 2018

Sara: Southwest Storm Shutters, Sara speaking. 

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. I’ve been trying to get one of my shutters fixed since just after the hurricane. I’ve called and called and you've promised someone will get back to me but nobody ever does. When I stopped by your office last week, you said you’d have Don call me that afternoon. Hurricane season starts in a month. I really, really need that shutter repaired. 

Sara: Oh my God, I am so embarrassed! This isn’t like him. I tell you what, I’m going to put you on the schedule right now for — let me see — how about Thursday, May 3 between 9 and 3? 

TJD: I have three appointments that day but I’ll rearrange my schedule. Thank you!

May 3, 4:40 p.m.

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. You promised you’d be here today between 9 and 3. It’s 4:40 now and, after sitting around all day waiting for you to show up, I’m learning you’ve gone home for the day. This is unacceptable. I spent (a massive amount) with you last year and these shutters are guaranteed for ten years. If you don’t call me back first thing tomorrow I’m going to call the Better Business Bureau.

May 4

TJD: Hello?

Sara: This is Sara at Southwest Shutters. Mr. Dryden, I am so, so sorry. The technician we had scheduled to repair your shutter yesterday up and quit without warning — abandoned his truck and the sheriff finally found it on Marco Island this morning. You have my word Don, the owner, will be there on June 3 at 8:30 a.m. sharp. 

TJD: You swear?

Sara: On a stack of Bibles. This isn’t the way we do business. There will be no charge.

TJD: There shouldn’t be, they’re guaranteed for 10 years, parts and labor. 

June 3, 9:30 a.m.

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden at 555-5555. Call me! I have had it with you people! You were supposed to be here an hour ago.  I ran a service business myself and if I had treated my customers the way you treat yours I'd have been out of business pronto.

June 6, 2:45 p.m.

Woman: Thank you for calling Shutter Pro, my name is Jennifer.

TJD: Hi Jennifer, my name is Tom Dryden. A neighbor told me your company repairs storm shutter motors. I have one that is broken. I need to have it fixed ASAP. 

Jennifer: Mr. Dryden, I am so sorry but we are booked solid until September.

TJD: You're kidding. September? 

 Jennifer: Don't worry, I can help. Do you have a pen and paper handy?

TJD: Yes.

Jennifer: Call Enrique Menendez at 555-1234. He used to work for us but retired last year. He still takes on some of our overflow work and, don’t tell anyone I told you this, he charges less than we do.

TJD: Thank you so much! I will call him now!

June 6, 2:48 p.m.

Recorded voice: You have reached Enrique Menendez. Please leave your name and number and I will call you back.

TJD: Hi Enrique, my name is Tom Dryden. Jennifer at Shutter Pro recommended you. I have an electric roll-down shutter with a broken motor and I need to get it fixed. If you could call me back, I’d really appreciate it, I’m desperate here.

June 6, 4:45 p.m.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden.

Sara: This is Sara at Southwest Shutters. I know we’ve given you the run-around and I’m so, so sorry.  The reason I haven’t called is that the manufacturer hasn’t had any replacement motors in stock, they’re waiting for some to arrive from China, but they have confirmation they are on their way and have promised they will be FedExing us a new motor to to arrive Monday morning, June 18th at 8:30, and we’ll be at your house by 9 a.m that same day to install it.  If we are a few minutes late, it’s because we are waiting for FedEx. You have been beyond patient. Thank you.

TJD: It’s a good thing you called. I want you to do this work because, after all, you installed the shutters and have guaranteed them but I finally put a call into someone else because I’d given up. Can I call him and tell him to forget it?

Sara: Absolutely!

Same day, 4:46 p.m. (call that went into my voicemail while I was talking to Sara).

Enrique: This is Enrique Menendez returning your call. I can fix your shutter motor tomorrow and will be there at 9. Please text me your address.

Same day, 4:52 p.m.

Text message from TJD to Enrique: Hi Enrique. Please disregard my message but I can’t thank you enough for returning my call. Have a great day!

June 18th, 9:30 a.m.

Recorded voice: You have reached the voicemail of Southwest Storm Shutters. Our offices are closed for vacation from Monday, June 18th through Friday, June 22nd. If you’ll leave your name and number we will return your call on Monday, June 25th.