Slice of Life

A Special Kind of Empathy

I’ve been deeply moved by the amount of empathy I’ve witnessed lately. Granted, it’s always seemed as though Americans have an immense caring for how their actions impact those around them; but lately, it’s been special. In fact I had a most extraordinary encounter with it this week.

The South Jersey area experienced several days of rainfall. I noticed my windshield wiper blades beginning to streak. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but during the evenings it could look like someone smeared Vaseline on the window. As it drizzled one afternoon, I figured it a good time to replace them.

Much like the empathy I’ve witnessed lately, my windshield wiper blades are also “special.” In fact, they’re so unique I can only purchase them through the dealership where I bought my car. As it’s in an out-of-the-way area, I procured a spare pair when I took the car in for service during the spring of last year.

I learned from past experience. The first time I needed windshield wipers I went to the auto parts store in my neighborhood; the one I drive by on the way home. Windshield wiper blades are a very common part. Every car has them. I can get them anywhere any time I want, I figured. Wouldn’t you know it? The auto parts store—one that’s part of a national chain–didn’t carry this “special” brand. As I didn’t want to make special trips anymore, I made sure I’d always have a spare set at home whenever I needed them.

To paraphrase Robert Burns: the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. When I installed the windshield wipers, they were incorrect. The person who pulled them gave me two passenger side wiper blades: not one for the driver’s side and one for the passenger’s side. As I happened to be off from work the day this occurred, I opted to go out of my way to the dealership to pick-up the right wiper blade.

When I got the wiper blade, I installed it myself to make sure it was the correct one. I measured it to confirm that I had been correct. The one wiper blade the dealership sold me last year was the wrong one.

I felt a bit distraught. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way during rush hour traffic in the rain. All this because one of the dealership’s employees failed to do his/her job. Was that really fair to me? After all, as a customer, the money I spend there goes to cover salaries. Wasn’t this person technically my employee, too? I decided to discuss the situation with one of the managers there.

I asked to see whoever was in charge. The general manager had already left for the day, so they put me in touch with a gentleman I’ll call ‘Jerry.’ I explained what happened.

Jerry made no effort to restrain his overwhelming concern regarding my inconvenience. His eyes glazed over with great interest. I thought I detected a sigh of alarm escape from his lips. When I finished explaining what happened, he leaned back. The overflow of emotion prohibited him from even making eye contact with me. It was like he felt so embarrassed by the employee’s inability to read numbers off a box that he couldn’t bring himself to even make eye contact with me.

After a moment that must have seemed never ending to him, he mustered the courage to make amends for this humiliating oversight. “I apologize. People make mistakes. I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here. Hopefully, we got it right this time.”

I have to admit, at first I felt a bit disappointed. After all, I had to go totally out of my way to rectify his employee’s “mistake.” I had to use gas I paid for as well as time that I can never recover. Then I reflected on Jerry’s words: “People make mistakes.”

I realized that does happen. How true. And Jerry was “sorry.” Then I thought about the empathy Jerry showed: both to me and his inept employee. Just maybe, I thought, I need to be more like Jerry.

Based on his profound understanding of human error, I’m sure Jerry applies that philosophy to other facets of his life. If either he or someone he loved were injured because a mechanic installed the wrong brakes, he’d chalk that one up to “a mistake.” That’s why pencils have erasers. After all, the part number of the brakes may have been similar. Anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. I know he’d bring the car back to the same mechanic with the understanding that “hopefully” (s)he would get it right on the second try.

I’m also very confident that if a heart surgeon used the wrong suture on either him or someone he loved, Jerry would just call that a “learning experience.” “Suture looks like suture,” I’m sure he’d say. “Anyone could’ve made a mistake pulling it.” Of course, the expression “the surgeon said he was sorry, so everything’s okay” would’ve featured prominently in any subsequent eulogy.

I’ve convinced with metaphysical certainty that if Jerry’s employer shorted him $30 on his paycheck, he would’ve forgone financial remuneration in favor of a sincere, “Sorry” from the department that handles payroll. I have no right to complain about the $30 in parts and gas his employee’s mistake cost me. I received an apology. I accept that with the same gratitude Jerry would have in the situation I described.

Jerry’s empathy deeply touched me. It was truly “special.” I’m sure he and his coworkers will show the same understanding should I decide to go car shopping at one of his competitors next time. After all, if I make the wrong decision, it’s only a “mistake” that costs his company a couple thousand dollars in profits.

Sorry, Jerry.

My Inauguration Story

The quadrennial ritual in which we install another Chief Executive is upon us. It got me thinking about the lavish pageantry of the Inaugural Balls that we see on television. I always thought about how fascinating it must be to attend a Presidential Inauguration in person. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my relatives had the opportunity to do so.

I’d always heard these stories that my maternal grandparents attended John Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball in 1961. I found that interesting, but as an historian, I was skeptical. In my younger days I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. Always loquacious, he’d tell me all about his life story. He’d discuss his career working for the railroad. He’d talk about his experiences serving the nation in the Second World War. And he’d share his thoughts on politics. He lived in Riverton, but his heart belonged to the City of Brotherly Love. He avidly followed current events in Philadelphia.

As much as my grandfather discussed the topics of government and politics, I don’t recall him ever mentioning he attended a Presidential Inauguration. When I knew him his political views were solidly conservative. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that he would’ve attended a party commemorating the election of a Democratic President.

My parents were the ones who told me that my grandparents attended John Kennedy’s inauguration. My mom said my grandfather knew Chet Huntley of the Huntley/Brinkley team.  Somehow, my grandfather got the tickets for the ball through him.  I had no reason to disbelieve this, but I wanted to see some solid proof. I remember my grandfather had a bust of John Kennedy in his house, but that wasn’t exactly evidence. I needed something substantial. I wanted some incontrovertible historical evidence that he partied with a president.

Sometime after my mother passed away, I decided to investigate my family history. I figured that she must have had some old photographs from when she grew up. I looked all over the house but couldn’t find any. After a few weeks of searching, one day I was sitting in the living room looking at my grandparents’ wedding photo hanging on the wall across from me. I looked down to see the coffee table. For the first time in twenty years of looking at this particular piece of furniture I noticed there was a door on it. I opened it to reveal some old family albums that I’d never seen before. In one of them I found a series of pictures of my grandparents in formal dress. My grandfather was clad in a tuxedo while my grandmother was wearing a polka dot evening gown complimented by a black shawl. A pair of long white gloves covered her hands and forearms. I’d seen pictures of them out to dinner and dressed-up, but I never saw them wearing anything this elegant. I got to thinking about that rumor they attended President Kennedy’s Inauguration. They were certainly dressed for an event of that magnitude, but I needed to know more.

One day I started cleaning out the attic and found it. Buried under a number of old boxes, I located a stash of papers that belonged to my grandfather. Among them was a small envelope with his address. In the top left hand corner in bas-relief the words The Inaugural Ball stood out. The date January 5, 1961 grabbed my attention. I opened the envelope as carefully as my shaking hands would let me. Inside were four documents. One was a postcard. It read as follows:

NBC News 30 Rockefeller Plaza New York City 20

Dear Mr. McKeon:

I have taken the liberty of sending your request for tickets to the Inaugural Committee in Washington, since they (and only they) have charge of them.

I sent it to the special attention of an acquaintance there, so let us hope it is honored. I am sure the request will be respected if it is humanly possible.



Chet Huntley

In addition to the postcard, the envelope contained a letter and two tickets to the Inaugural Ball held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday January 20, 1961 at 9:00 PM. Blue check marks graced both tickets.

I finally had my proof. My grandparents did, in fact, attend President Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. I then wondered why? As I mentioned my grandfather was pretty conservative. The more I researched the family history I think I found my answer. Both my grandmother’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants. My grandfather’s grandparents were as well. I can only imagine what it must have meant to them to see someone from a similar background manage to get elected to the highest political office that our country has to offer.  They must have felt truly inspired. And so should we.

The Detritus of Christmas Passed

I’ve always found it ironic that the best time of year is followed by the worst time of year. My drive to work reinforced my belief. On the way I passed numerous Christmas Trees thrown out at various curbs. Several inflatable Santa Clauses lay in flat heaps on people’s front lawns. Instead of the radio greeting me with cherry, upbeat Holiday tunes, I listened to the same banal songs that saturated the airways prior to Thanksgiving.

My drive home wasn’t much better. A cold, blustery wind made me crank my heater for the first time this season. Instead of an array of Christmas lights, a somber twilight illuminated my way home. Yes, Christmas 2015 is formally over.

Ever since my childhood, I always loathed the end of the Holiday Season. In my youth, I figured that came from having to return to school. The carefree days of sleeping late and playing with the toys Santa brought me had come to an end. The time to get back to work had come. Now I wonder if that was the real reason.

As I got older I realized that Christmas is the most heavily advertised event on the planet. I remember back in the 1990s while shopping for my parents’ anniversary, I noticed Christmas displays in the mall. Since my Mom and Dad were married on October 10th, I couldn’t believe it. How could a store be getting ready for the Holidays prior to Thanksgiving?

Flash forward twenty some years. Now stores get ready for the Holidays around Labor Day. I watched television commercials targeting Christmas shoppers before Football season began this year.

While growing up in the 1970s I remember one radio station would play nothing but Christmas music from December 24th through January 1st. Now, several play nothing but Holiday music from the Monday before Thanksgiving until Christmas Day! That’s a solid month!

And then on December 26th, it’s all over. All the Christmas music disappears from the airways. Stores begin removing their displays. I remember a few years ago while at a café on New Year’s Day, I watched as the staff took down the Holiday decorations and put away the Christmas Tree. I felt like a soldier watching Old Glory descend the flagpole.

It’s not that I’m depressed Christmas is over; it’s that I feel like I’ve entered another world. For several months, everything one sees reminds one that Christmas is coming. In the span of a few days, all of that disappears. I remember a March visit to the café I mentioned earlier. Some of the baristas started singing:

           Oh, by gosh, by golly

            It’s time for mistletoe and holly.

            They laughed saying how weird it was not to hear that song every few minutes.

I also miss all the fun stuff leading up to the Christmas Season. For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the heat and humidity leading up to Labor Day gives way to cool autumn days. After that a lot of fun Halloween activities take place. They’re followed by Thanksgiving. All this time, signs of Christmas become apparent, leading up to the big day itself.

Right now, we’re looking at three months of lousy weather. I’ve heard some refer to this period in the Northeastern U. S. as “the Dark Ages.” We’ve got bitter, frigid cold with the ever present possibility of snow and ice. It’s ironic that seasonal tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “It’s a Marshmallow World in the Winter” no longer come over the airwaves.

It may not seem like it now, but the detritus of Christmas 2015 will give way to spring’s blooming flowers. Then again, every year the Season seems to start earlier and earlier. Who knows? The way things are going, 2016’s Black Friday deals may be in full swing before Easter.


The Dog Days of Christmas

There’s nothing quite like the Yuletide season. It features great food, family and fun. Since the first often accompanies the other two, I do my best to keep in shape during the Holiday Season. When you think about it, what better time to go jogging in the evening? Aside from burning off those (many) excess calories, it gives a person the opportunity to take in the Holiday atmosphere. Since it gets dark early this time of year, one can experience the full effect of the Christmas lights.

That’s what I did this past weekend. While frost bite becomes a major concern for joggers in the waning days of autumn, this time I faced a more familiar adversary from the summer: dehydration. You read that right: dehydration. Keep in mind I live in the Philadelphia area: not in Australia. A balmy haze settled over town last week. The dew point reached August-like proportions. Upon returning home, the profuse sweat made me look like I’d just gotten out of the shower. Santa wouldn’t need his thick red and white suit this year…or would he?

Several days later the temperature dipped into the upper fifties. It rained. And rained. And then it rained some more. By the weekend, the temperature plummeted into the more seasonal upper-thirties. A lot of people would get sick in this weather. I’m sure lucky I run and keep in shape so I don’t come down with anything for the Holidays, right? Not so.

They call New Jersey “the Garden State” for a reason. I’ve battled allergies my entire life. That’s another reason I like to run. It helps to break-up my congestion. It also acclimatizes me to the weather. Wild temperature swings aggravate my allergies more than anything else. When precipitation is involved, they get even worse. Most times, I handle these fluctuations without any problems. The fifty degree changes in the course of a day or two, I can’t. Not for the first time this season, I found myself visiting my neighborhood urgent care center for sinusitis.

Sudden bursts of unseasonal warm weather confuse my sinuses. They think it’s the height of August ragweed season. The back of my throat feels like a handful of newly mown grass clumped there. My voice has been so raspy from coughing that it sounds like a cross between Bruce Springsteen’s and Tom Waits’. I’ve had several sneezing fits that lasted for minutes. This can be troublesome especially while eating. (I guess that explains why I’ve been dining alone these past few days.)

I know I shouldn’t complain. There are far worse sinus related issues one could have. My great-grandmother passed away from carcinoma of the sinuses. (Even with this family history and my own allergy issues, I still smoked like an idiot in my youth.) Besides, thanks to the immediate access to medical attention the urgent care center provides, I’ve been able to do most of my regular routine. Without their assistance, I would’ve been confined to bed for days.

As I’m writing this, it’s 39 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I checked the latest weather forecast. We’re getting more rain next week. On Christmas Eve the temperature will rise into the mid-seventies. Christmas Day it’s going to “cool off” to a more modest 60 degrees. This tells me two things. 1) I’ll probably be having Christmas Dinner with the folks at the urgent care center. 2) For those wondering what to get me: tissues and decongestants would be good choices.

While I prefer warmer weather, I’m actually looking forward to winter. I’m not excited about another muggy warm spell. I’ve had enough of the Dog Days of Christmas.


Summer Runnin’

It’s that time of year when the temperature often breaks the 90 degree mark. Dew points routinely hover around the 70 degree range. This atmosphere creates the sensation of an afghan blanket soaked with hot water enveloping one upon stepping outside. What better time to take a nice long run through the neighborhood?

Please bear in mind that jogging in this sort of environment is dangerous. I’ve been running for thirty years. I always make sure to drink a lot of water and stretch properly before leaving. In addition, I stay on alert for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Most importantly: I stay close to home in the event I pull something or become dehydrated.

Before people applaud my vigilance, an old saying comes to mind. “Good judgement comes from experience. But experience comes from bad judgement. There’s the problem.” I learned this lesson the hard way a few summers ago in Louisiana.

Way back in the days of my youth—my late thirties–I engaged in some reckless activities. As a life-long runner, I thought I could do anything. I’d run in the snow with the temperature in the teens, and I’d jogged in hundred degree heat. The way I saw it, “Beowulf had his Grendel, I run in the elements.” When I got to Slidell, Louisiana for a September vacation, I had no reason to modify my running routine.

My Dad and I stayed at my stepmother, Pat’s, house. She lived in a cul-de-sac like I’d never seen before. The street stretched for three miles to a dead end. I didn’t believe Pat when she explained that. She then took my Dad and me for a ride to the end of it then back to her house. While I didn’t check the odometer in the car, the length and duration of our trip led me to believe her. My first thought: I’ve got to run this thing.

I’d jogged for thirty minutes many times back in the Philadelphia area. I ran steep hills in summer heat. This route was flat; scenic, too. Water surrounded the entire development. It would be a nice change of venue.

The next day I opted to change my daily routine. Most times I’d run in the late afternoon after returning from work. Since I had a full vacation day planned, I decided to head out around 11:00 AM.

“Be careful,” my Dad and Pat said. “It’s hot.”

I snickered. It was mid-September. I’d been running all of July and August back home. This would be nothing. I sauntered out the door and jogged down the road.

While into my trek I learned a few things. For one, distances seem much different on foot than they do from the back-seat of an air conditioned car. I coasted down the street admiring the nice homes and view of the water. In spite of doing half-hour jaunts for years, getting to the end of this road seemed much longer than I expected.

I also discovered that the Gulf Coast is much closer to the Equator than the Southern half of New Jersey. No clouds appeared in the sky, either. I’d run in Texas and Kansas in the summertime, too. Neither of those places prepared me for the heat and humidity of the New Orleans area.

My most interesting discovery during my jog concerned the State of New Jersey. While it’s known as “the Garden State” it has a lot of trees, too. While on the road in Pat’s development, I didn’t see one. I had no shade at all. Heat, humidity and abundant sunshine don’t have favorable effects on the human body.

When I reached the end of the street, I felt winded. Sweat flowed from every pore on my body. I’d only completed a part of the run. Now I had to make my way back to Pat’s house.

I thought about all the hills I’d run back in Jersey. I had one route that included seven hills; some of which approached a 45 degree angle. I never would’ve thought the toughest run of my life would take place on a flat surface.

While heading back to Pat’s the heat exhausted me. I thought about stopping and walking. I checked my watch. I’d only been jogging for 17 minutes! One thing I learned as an overweight teenager: long runs turn into much longer walks. I resolved to keep going.

Did I mention just how long this street was? I used the house numbers to keep myself motivated. If I had a better source of inspiration I would’ve used it; any other one would’ve helped. I watched them decrease from 620 to 618 to 616. Pat lived at 168. The numbers continued to fall. 604…602…600…598…What! I did a double-take. Yep. I read it correctly. 598….596…

At this point I became scared. I’d like to write that my pulse accelerated, my breathing increased and my palms sweated, but they already did because of the jogging. As the sun beat down, I thought I could be in a serious life-threatening situation.

I focused on my task. All those years of running hills in the heat served as conditioning. I was going to get through it. Every step was one step closer to my goal. I kept repeating that over-and-over in my mind until I arrived at house number 168.

As I entered my Dad asked. “How did your run go?”

I smiled and said. “I ran for 35 minutes.”

“Wow!” Pat’s eyebrows danced up and down.

“Aw, I always do that back home. Hey, mind if I finish off the sports drinks?”

I’ve been known to mix sports drinks with gin to make my own blend of “gin and juice.” I wisely opted not to do that in this case. As I stood in the shower with the handle cranked all the way to cold I still sweated. I thought to myself, maybe, just maybe I need to reevaluate my preparations for running in the heat.

Christmas Memories

My most poignant Christmas memory took place while visiting my mother’s grave. Even I’m surprised to see myself write that. After all, we live in an era where Christmas brings out the twin vices of materialism and selfishness in many people. Who doesn’t vividly recall the childhood thrill of opening presents under the blazing lights of a Christmas tree? Such times comprise the pantheon of my happiest memories.

Mom passed away in the fall of 2010 following a brief, but agonizing battle with cancer. Even though I understood the magnitude of her illness, her passing still came as a surprise. Nothing prepared me for losing someone that close; even when I knew it inevitable.

Christmas morning that year was eerie. For the first Christmas ever, the scent of Mom’s bacon and eggs didn’t fill the house. I found it harder to cope with not giving her presents. I’m terrible when it comes to shopping for women, which may explain why I’m still single. At any rate, no matter what I got, Mom would always gush like she’d been hoping for my present her entire life. I already missed experiencing her doing this. In fact, I still had the gift I bought her for her 46th anniversary. (I should note that she passed away on that day.)

I walked down the same steps I had as a child. During Christmases past, I’d race down them past Mom and Dad to my new toys. This year, instead of yelling for Dad to get up so he could film me opening my presents, I went downstairs and breakfasted alone. I wanted to let Dad sleep in. Christmas is tough enough for him. His father passed away on Christmas Eve of 2003.

My gaze drifted among a series of old family photos laid out on the dining room table. One included my Mom, Grandmother and Great-Grandmother. It’s a shame it takes such a personal tragedy to make someone appreciate the real meaning of the holidays. Without family, there’s not much of a reason to have them.

Both my mom and grandmother are buried at the same cemetery. Since it was early on Christmas morning, I thought it would be a nice gesture to “visit” them, if you will. I put on a warm coat and jumped in the car.

While driving past a series of stores along the highway I chuckled at the irony. It’s impossible to find a parking space during any of the days leading up to Christmas. Everybody runs out to take advantage of those last minute deals they run close to the holiday. It’s like nothing in life matters, but shopping. On Christmas Day, all of them are closed; the parking lots completely empty. That always seemed strange to me.

The hypocrisy in thinking that way hit me like a blast of cool winter air. As a kid, I wouldn’t leave the living room for a week after Christmas. My new toys were my universe. Nothing else existed outside of my circumscribed personal play pen. While reflecting on my new life situation, I recognized that I could just as selfish as anyone else at times. I guess that’s the problem with becoming a mature adult: you start thinking like one.

While ruminating on all the self-centeredness that permeates the “season of giving” I pulled into the cemetery. A “Christmas miracle” of sorts greeted me. The scene reminded me a bit of the store parking lots during the lead-up to Christmas Day. I don’t recollect the exact number, but numerous people chose to spend their Christmas morning the same way I had. It touched me to see a man, his wife, their three kids AND FAMILY DOG paying their respects. In addition to the holiday, the temperature hovered in the low 30’s (Fahrenheit, of course). It still wasn’t 9:00 AM, yet, either.

This experience made me feel even worse about my childhood selfishness. Still, it enhanced my faith in humanity. Witnessing so many people focused on something larger than they was a gift worthy of Good Ol’ St. Nick.

Thank a Veteran

It’s a time of year where we all enjoy spending time with friends and family. Let’s never forget those who are unable to because of their commitment to defending our country.

I frequent a Starbucks near a local military base. I often encounter men and women in uniform there. Even if I have to go out of my way, I always make a point to express my gratitude for their service. Most politely smile and thank me for my support. I do remember a special encounter I had with a veteran several Christmas seasons ago.

I saw an Air Force captain standing in line with a woman I presumed to be his wife. I walked up to him and said, “Thank you for your service.” His head jolted back. After a brief pause he extended his hand. As I shook it he thanked me. His wife also seemed surprised while she thanked me, as well. This time I was the one who politely smiled back.

I returned to my seat and resumed reading the current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. (For those who don’t appreciate what our veterans are doing for us, try reading that publication.) Over my shoulder I noticed the captain and his wife sitting at the table across from me. His gaze firmly locked on me. Visions of an unanticipated trip to the Air Force recruiter entered my mind.

I let out a mild sigh of relief as the captain and his wife stood up and walked to the door.  Before leaving he approached me. He extended his hand once more and said, “I just want to tell you how much it means that you thanked me.”  I tried to pshaw the idea, but he was adamant. He’d just completed 90 days in Afghanistan and was home on leave for Christmas. He sincerely appreciated the recognition for his service. It troubled me that it surprised him so much.

Seeing him and his wife reminded me of my own family history. My father, Ed Stephany, Jr., served in Vietnam. He and my mom had only been married three years when he received his draft notice.  They’d just started their new life together. With a new bride at home and a job that had been going very well, Dad dutifully entered the Army. On his very first day in country his bunk mates told him how fortunate he was to be stationed in Nha Trang. “We never get attacked,” they laughed. That night the Tet Offensive began. My father and his unit were shelled several times a week for the next year.

Thank a veteran.

People in my family have served in America’s conflicts going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. I’ve never personally served in the military. I have no illusions as to why my entire generation hasn’t been subject to mandatory military service. The sacrifices of our service people past and present allowed us that luxury. Let us never forget to express our appreciation to those in uniform. We all owe them, their families and friends an immense debt of gratitude. It’s one that we’ll never have the capability to repay. At the very least, especially during this Holiday Season, we can say, “Thank you.”

The Year of the Rabbit

For some reason, rabbits have been hopping into my life lately. Pun intended. They’ve been running around my yard, I‘ve read about them in stories and I even had one for dinner; that’s as a meal: not a guest. The Year of the Rabbit ended back in January of 2012. The next one won’t begin until January of 2023. What’s going on?

I’ll start with the dining thing. While in Arkansas on a business trip my group and I ended up at an upscale restaurant. I’d say not to tell the boss, but he owns the bistro, too. So much for putting that one on the expense report. * Rabbit appeared on the menu. Someone told me that they’re a delicacy. My grandfather ate rabbit while fighting in Europe during the Second World War. He’s not the person who told me that. I decided to try it. After all, we only live once. At the time the possibility that eating rabbits could have something to do with that didn’t enter my mind.

They say that everything tastes like chicken. Rabbit turned out to be the exception. It wasn’t bad. I’d describe it as a combination of scallops only with a meatier taste. I like seafood and I need protein to live. It was a win-win situation.

For some reason I had the impression rabbits were smart. While dining on one I thought, if they really are smart, wouldn’t this one be eating me? I wondered why I thought them intelligent. It must have come from Hugh Hefner, of all people. Initially, he wanted to call Playboy ™ magazine Stag Party™. At the time, a hunting magazine called Stag™ claimed trademark infringement. Hef changed the name. I’ve always believed that a brilliant move on his part. Beautiful women dressed in bunny costumes are much more appealing than ladies dressed as elk. The brand wouldn’t have been quite the same. That’s not to say I spend a lot of time “studying” Playboy Bunnies as far as anyone knows. That story doesn’t have much to do with rabbits, though.

A large cotton tail became a frequent guest in my backyard this summer. Most evenings around seven she’d hop to the center of the yard. This rabbit would sit there for several minutes and then lay down. I’d watch her bask in waning light of the summer sun. Unfortunately for her, so would my dog, Cinnamon.

“Cinny” is a shorke. She’s very friendly: except to non-human visitors that intrude on her territory. One evening she noticed the rabbit. She growled, barked and scraped the sliding glass door. Not realizing how delicious rabbits were, I picked her up and took her to the back door. Since bunnies have long ears, I figured the rabbit would hear me and scamper off. I rattled the screen expecting it to leave. It simply sat up. I hit the door again as the dog barked. The rabbit didn’t move. I opened the door, figuring the thing would run. It didn’t. The rabbit just backed away a few steps.

By now I couldn’t control the dog. Cinny flailed all four of her appendages so fast she reminded me of Keith Moon during a drum solo. Much like a madman pounding the skins, she became difficult to control. I set her down. She bolted after the rabbit. It hesitated for a second before hopping off. That pause could’ve been costly. Cinny came within a hare’s length of catching her. Pun intended. I figured the rabbit dithered because of a long history outrunning predators. The more I thought about this I realized something: when it comes to avoiding its enemies, it’s only going to be wrong once. Even with a 99.9% success rate, I still wouldn’t like that average.

Maybe rabbits aren’t as smart as I thought. I re-read the old saw about the tortoise and the hare. This time I picked up Lord Dunsany’s version. It included the usual part about the rabbit going to sleep since he knew he’d beat the tortoise. (Sorry if this is a spoiler, folks.) The author did add some minor variations. At the end, he explained the reason. Very few animals survived a massive forest fire shortly after the race. Why didn’t very many escape? When the creatures noticed the blazing conflagration they sent the fastest among them to warn the others: the tortoise.

Rabbits may not be the most intelligent animal I find in my back yard. At least I hope they’re not the smartest mammal on the property while I’m standing there. They still make things interesting. I checked the Chinese calendar. This is the Year of the Horse. I hope I don’t have as many run-ins with them. At the very least, I don’t want to see them on the menus anywhere I eat.

* For the record: my employer did reimburse me for the meal. In fact, the management encouraged my group to dine there. After much deliberation I chose not to review this particular establishment as part of my Restaurant Review series. PLEASE DO NOT INTERPRET THAT NEGATIVELY. I didn’t feel I could review it objectively due to my personal ties with the management. That’s the ONLY reason I didn’t write about it on my blog.

Thanksgiving Memories

People will describe numerous signs of aging to you. To my mind not wanting to have Thanksgiving dinner at home makes the top spot on that list. After all: it takes days to prepare and possibly twice as long to clean-up. I had the pleasure of spending this past Thanksgiving with my Dad and Step-mom. We went out to a local Charlie Brown’s for the “All You Can Eat Turkey Special”. (If I may put my food critic’s hat on for a moment: it lived up to its name. The limitless supply of turkey, potatoes and stuffing couldn’t have been better. The unlimited amount of vegetables, I could’ve lived without, though.) Knowing I could gorge myself to capacity without having to help with the tidying afterwards enhanced my turkey day enjoyment. So did the company. We all live busy lives and dinner gave us the opportunity to catch up on things.

During the course of our conversation, our thoughts drifted to those no longer able to join us for dinner. My Dad brought up my favorite holiday story. Our Uncle Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s brother) had an interesting tradition. When he felt full during Thanksgiving Dinner, he’d excuse himself from the table and take a walk around the block. Upon his return, he’d sit down and resume his meal. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him personally, but family members all describe him as “thin”. Uncle Tom must’ve had a pretty good metabolism. I’ve been jogging for over 25 years, but nobody describes me that way.

In the course of discussing Uncle Tom’s Thanksgiving weight loss routine, I remembered my grandmother, Marguerite Stephany, telling me about him. I recall her sharing that story every Thanksgiving. She lived for that holiday. It seemed like she spent all year getting ready for the last Thursday in November. I wouldn’t be able to see the dinner table because of all the food she’d put there. While I was only 12 the last time she cooked dinner at her home, I remember at least three t.v. trays full of vegetables. Granted, at least eight people showed up for Thanksgiving dinner, but there were still plenty of leftovers for everyone. They lasted us close to a week after the holiday.

Several years ago, I started working for a gentleman who purchased my grandparents’ home from the couple they sold it to. While living there, he refurbished the place. When he found out that the house belonged to my grandparents, the first thing he asked me about was the oven. I felt a tinge of sadness when he mentioned removing it. “A lot of great Thanksgiving Dinners got cooked in that stove,” I told him. While writing this I could still smell the scent of my grandmother’s turkey and stuffing wafting through the cool autumn air.

I get sentimental every Thanksgiving. The last time I ever saw my grandfather, Ed Stephany, was on Thanksgiving of 2003. At the time, we had it at my Aunt Marguerite’s house in Reading, PA. (She lived half-way between my parent’s home and my grandparents’ new residence up the Poconos, so we opted to have dinner there.) I remember my grandfather lamenting his health. I didn’t believe him. The guy was a machine. Rarely, and I mean very rarely, would he sit still. He served as an officer with the Kingswood Lake Association, he volunteered as the treasurer for a local branch of the VFW and held the rank of Captain of the Kunkletown Fire Police. He did most of these things in his late seventies! Apparently, years of eating all the vegetables my grandmother cooked, really paid off. Sadly, he passed away of Christmas Eve of that year at the age of 81.

Thanksgiving of 2012 was one of the last times I saw my grandmother. On the cusp of turning 90, we’d retired her apron for her. We had dinner at the Inn in Reading. As my aunt went to get her dinner, she told my grandmom, “You gave us so many great Thanksgivings, let us wait on you.” My grandmother volunteered her time in many of the same organizations as my grandfather. In spite of raising two children and working as a supervisor for a publishing company, I thought she worked harder after she retired. She passed away in September of 2013, just two months shy of her 91st birthday.

I really miss my Mom on Thanksgiving. Her birthday sometimes falls on the holiday. This past November 24th would’ve been her 70th birthday. I vividly remember visiting her grave on that date the year she passed. In the distance I noticed a school bus drive by. It reminded me of my youth. I’d get home from school early and would look forward to spending Thanksgiving with the whole family. For the first time I realized that many of the people I spent Thanksgiving with were no longer part of my life.

Eugene O’Neill once wrote: “When you’re 50 you start thinking about things you haven’t thought about before. I used to think getting old was about vanity – but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial.” Ironically, this Thanksgiving Day marked the 61st anniversary of his passing.

A lot of people complain about the frenzied nature of the holiday season. Some with large families tell me that they have breakfast at one of their kids’ homes, lunch at another’s and then dinner at someone else’s place. They don’t realize that’s a good problem to have. The end of the year may be a little hectic, but it’s a great opportunity to spend time with loved ones.

Whenever I reflect on Thanksgivings past I’m reminded of an expression from Dr. Seuss. I like it so much that I quoted it when I eulogized my Mom. “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” While I miss kicking off the Holiday Season by breaking bread with my Mom and grandparents, the times I did enriched my life. I’m a better person today for having the opportunity.

I had a great time with my Dad and Step-mom yesterday. I’m already looking forward to next Thanksgiving.

Airline Anxiety

“I was drunk and stole a case of beer from the liquor store. Then three cops came. I got one of them in a headlock. Then they tased me three times,” the gentleman seated next to me said.

Thus began my return trip to Philadelphia from Fayetteville.

I worry a lot when I travel. Did I forget something? Will I make my connecting flight? Is the dog going to have any wild parties while I’m out? Etc. While I don’t enjoy the surprises that always come up when I’m on the road, I’ve sure met some thought-provoking people. Last Friday, during my return trip from a week long training session in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, I met the most…well, I guess interesting would be the best word.

I boarded the plane and took my seat on the aisle next to a young man. From his boyish facial features and shaggy hair, I estimated his age somewhere around twenty-four. He looked like Keith Moon only with dark rimmed glasses. He reminded me even more of the late Who drummer with the first thing he said to me.

“Do they serve alcohol on this plane?” His voice sounded like Robert Mitchum’s in the movie Cape Fear.

“They do,” I replied. “But they charge you for the drinks.”

“Aw, man. I need a drink. I’m leaving Arkansas to get away from some trouble I ran into. I got out of jail because I’m crazy.”

Did I mention this was the first time I ever met this guy?

“No, you don’t have anything to worry about,” he reassured me. “I’m not dangerously crazy.”

Suddenly, I needed a drink.

As he proceeded to relate the details of his run-in with Arkansas law enforcement, my mind drifted back to his “crazy” statement. While trying to wrap my mind around why he would think large quantities of alcohol would be good treatment for a chemical imbalance of the brain, a young man seated behind us joined in the conversation.

“I hear when they tase you, you shit your pants.”

My interlocutor turned around, “Oh, yeah. I did.”

All of a sudden, my alcohol related mishaps didn’t seem as embarrassing to me.

He faced me and fidgeted. “Man, when are we going to get going?”

“I’m sure we’ll be taking off soon,” I assured him.

I introduced myself and he told me his name. For the sake of this piece, I’ll refer to the young man as “Mitch”. We talked about catching connecting flights and our final destinations. In order not to concern any Chambers of Commerce or Departments of Tourism, I won’t disclose Mitch’s.

After exchanging these pleasantries, I opened a book and tried to read. To my relief the plane taxied towards the runway.

“Aw, man. It’s about time.”

My fingers clenched the book as the crew delivered the safety instructions. For the first time while on a plane, I worried about my well-being. The cabin lights dimmed.

“Here we go!” Even with the seatbelt around his lap, Mitch bounced up and down.

The plane came to a stop. The captain then announced: “Our departure has been delayed for another eighteen minutes according to air traffic control.  Here are your tax dollars at work, folks. Just sit tight. In thirteen minutes we’ll be heading out to the runway.”

“Aw, man.” Mitch’s lugubrious lament filled my ears.

Sweat escaped from my pores. Was it because this postponement only gave me fifteen minutes to catch my connecting flight in Charlotte? Or was it because I worried how Mitch would handle this? I don’t think the later caused my anxiety. After all, this would defer the time until he’d have access to alcohol. He did say it took three cops and three tases, right?

The plane finally became airborne. Once the pilot turned off the “fasten your seatbelt” sign, Mitch asked me to move so he could use the rest room. He even apologized for inconveniencing me.  I thought that a nice gesture, but an unnecessary one. With him away from his seat, I hoped the drink cart would pass by before he returned.

I had no such luck.

Mitch quickly got back. Once again, he said he was sorry for my having to move. The minor disruption didn’t trouble me a bit. A far more menacing matter loomed: the drink cart ominously approached.

I took a deep breath as it parked next to my seat.

“Would you like something to drink?” The flight attendant’s words entered my ears like daggers. My pulse accelerated.

“I’ll have a soda.” Mitch replied.

What? Did I hear that right? Did he order a soft drink?

The sound of a loud “click” confirmed. Mitch got a soda.


As I prepared for the dash to my connecting flight, I wished him the best of luck with his legal troubles.

“Oh, it’ll be fine. I just need to pay a few things off and I’ll be good.”

Mitch’s financial problems would explain why he didn’t purchase an alcoholic beverage. Let’s face it: for the money they charge to drink on an airplane, it would be cheaper to purchase a liquor store.

I did make it to my connecting flight. In fact, I had enough time to get something to drink. Due to my dehydration from sweating so much, I got a bottled water. After looking at what they charged me for it, I could’ve made a down payment on that liquor store. At any rate, it shows that there’s no point in worrying about things. In retrospect, I don’t think Mitch such a frightening guy. He was a good person who made some bad choices and then chose to keep making them.