A Perfectly Well-intentioned Person or November 22, 1963

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Last July in the newspaper I read: A perfectly well-intentioned person she has never met approaches her to say…almost anything that they believe is filled with heartfelt sincerity and the secret connection they share together. The “she” is Caroline Kennedy and I must confess that on the anniversary of her father’s death I would probably be one of those people if I ever got the chance.

On November 22 , 1963 just after Kennedy was shot I boarded a school bus for the afternoon session of kindergarten with Mrs. Serfling. Life was relatively carefree. I don’t know if my mother knew he had been assassinated yet but by the time I returned home it was clear something was very wrong. I crept up to my parents’ bedroom and listened to my mother sobbing face down on her bed. My father was sitting in the car listening to the radio and didn’t roll down the window to speak with me when I knocked on the door.

The days that followed were somber and quiet. I remember having the whole upstairs sections of the house to myself as my family sat before the large black and white television set in the basement and watched a slow moving story. The phone rang and I was surprised nobody went to answer it because we normally raced for the receiver, and being the youngest I usually lost. It was my father’s brother and he wanted to talk to my dad. I went downstairs and told my father who was on the phone but he didn’t say anything. I looked at the screen and saw the President’s two children in matching coats. I stared at the girl. She looked through the television set and I felt a connection to her. Then we watched some soldiers and I went back to the phone to say something to my uncle but the line had gone dead.Image

The next day in the newspaper Caroline Kennedy and her brother were on the front page. I pointed to her.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Five.”

“Like me.”

“Yes.”

Look and Life magazines showed up and I combed the black and white pictures of the President and his family. One picture showed moving men packing up the president’s rocking chair.

“Why do they have to move?” I asked.

“Because there’s a new president now.”

That didn’t seem fair to me and I worried about where Caroline and her little brother would play now that they had to leave the White House.

Over the years I checked in with Caroline when she happened to be in the news. She had long thick light brown hair just like mine. We both graduated from college in May 1980, but her graduation made the paper.

She got married in the summer of 1986 just like me. Two of her three children are the same ages as mine and her son is named Jack and so is mine, and we’re both half Irish. After that the trail goes cold and I have no more dots to connect…she’s rich, ambassador to Japan, daughter of a U.S. president and owns a 375-acre estate on Martha’s Vineyard. I teach art and live on a fifty foot lot  and can’t afford to go to a restaurant again until my daughter graduates from college.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about her but when I come across a news story about her I read it. If I ever did meet her I’ve decided I wouldn’t be the perfectly well intentioned person that she forgets about seconds later because I would stay in the background, remembering when we secretly connected through the television set in 1963.

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Me in 1963

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TWO YOUS OR SEE YEW LATER

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a normal yew

Our house is distinguished by two enormous bushes that sit at the top of the walkway leading into our front door. They resemble monster green mushrooms. The first time my mother came to visit she peered into the web of branches that held up their mushroom cap tops and said, “These are yews.” She stepped back and looked at them again. “Canadian yews. Very common actually but I’ve never seen any that looked like this.”

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The reason being is yews aren’t known for their height but rather their girth. One rarely sees the base branches unless they’re raking leaves out from underneath or trying to catch a hiding cat. Cats would never think to hide in our yews because of the exposure. Our yews stand close to nine feet high, spread out over six feet in diameter and have an almost sculptural trunk of intertwining branches that my daughter used to sit inside like a nest through elementary school. These two yews look more like props on a Star Trek set than bushes framing an exurban yard.

The two yews have two purposes; decoration, which they really aren’t unless we were vying to be an applicant in a Better Homes and Garden makeover or as camouflage.  The yews add a modicum of privacy but they also block out a nice view of our home. It seems covered up. These two purposes provide two perspectives; mine and Rob’s. These alternate points of view and have created a long lasting battle about the fate of these phantom bushes.  To cut them down or let them be.

Let’s be fair, the yews have gone rogue.  They’ve been growing on their own path without the supervision or care of an attentive homeowner for over thirty years and it’s too late to change their present course without an extreme intervention. The only care they receive now is an annual haircut that takes half a day and two people trying to reach the top while teetering on the edge of a step ladder sinking into the pachysandra.  We avoid this task until we can no longer walk down the steps without having branches scrape our faces. Spiders like to start in one yew and spin their web across the sidewalk to the other one. A trip to pick up the morning paper can result in spider web strands smeared across your face.

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Last summer during our annual trimming event we stopped random people walking past our house and polled them about the fate of the yews. The results shook down along gender lines. Women seemed to be instantly in favor of getting the chain saw out and men took a more studied approach. They either saw the work it would involve removing them or actually thought they looked “kinda cool,” which was the common response.

“What are you going to put there instead?” one neighbor asked.

“Uh, different bushes.”

“Not sure what that will look like.”

“Well it will look better than this, that’s for sure.”

“Nothings for sure.”

One person felt it was a bird habitat and they should stay put on those grounds alone.

“We have a lot of other trees for the birds,” I offered.

“Not the birds that like these trees,” they countered.

“They’re not trees! They’re bushes.”

“They look like trees.”

I stop asking people. After all it’s not up to them and if I lived here alone the bushes would have been toast a decade earlier. I change my tact and call a professional tree man.

“You’re gonna lose a lot of privacy.”

Rob agrees. “That’s what I think.”

“We can put in different bushes. Better bushes,” I say.

He clicks his tongue. “A normal yew has a huge root ball,” the tree man says. “I can only envision the size of these babies.” He shakes his head slowly which is code for money. The slower the shake the more it’s going to cost. “I never saw anything like them,” he says as he cranes his head back.

This much is clear. Removing them will not be easy and it certainly won’t be cheap and in the end it may not be much of an improvement. Sometimes the only way we can distinguish ourselves is by the one thing we have spent our whole lives trying to avoid. A lot of things in life are like that.

THE NEW YAR TIMES

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Katherine Hepburn’s character Tracy Lord, in The Philadelphia Story refers to a yacht saying, “my, she was yar.” Then she explains to her fiancé, George, what she’s talking about. It’s a telling moment. We learn that he’s not the man for her because he doesn’t know what yar means.  A majority of the audience for this 1940 movie needed to have it explained as well. It’s clear that most of America, like George, is moving with a different crowd than Tracy Lord. Lately I’ve been feeling like that with the New York Times.

The paper gets delivered to our house at roughly five-thirty every morning. You can hear the driver’s car roar around the lake followed by a dull thud on the street as the paper hits the driveway and the engine roars off again. I find the sound comforting  as I press the snooze bar for the third time. It gives me another reason to get up. Rob has moved on to electronic venues so the physical paper is mine alone. Reading the paper from 6:15 to 6:30 every morning doesn’t give you a lot of time to delve too deeply.  Today I read about rolling bar carts.

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My first thought was, “Who uses a rolling bar cart?” I imagined a house so expansive that the cart could have room to roll. I tried to picture the occasions that might call for a rolling bar cart.

         “Oh Robert, would you be so kind and roll in the bar cart and mix us all a cocktail.”

Would you use one for small gatherings as well as large? The article interviewed Alessandro Palazzi, the barman from Dukes Bar in London. “The style is very important, because it is used as a decoration or to show off your drink collection,” he said.

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Well that explains it. My bar doesn’t contain a collection that lasts longer than the length of a party and it’s usually contained on the card table I set up for the occasion. I mused about the possibility of buying a rolling cart as I started to scroll through the pictures displaying the range of styles available. That’s what the Home section is for, to help you imagine the possibility of owning something you had never thought of before like an exotic tree house or a radiator that’s made to look like a ram for only $11,000.

The bar carts were priced from $300.00 which seemed a bit high but low enough so I could still be a player, and went up to $17,500.00. Most were in the several thousand dollar range. I felt like George in The Philadelphia Story.

I thought about the driver who has to get up at 4 AM to get all the papers in our area delivered on time. Every Christmas we send twenty-dollars to our carrier to ensure this great service.  It seems like a tough job. Last year we had a terrible delivery person and the paper didn’t show up consistently until close to nine in the morning. We were on the phone with the Times every day until they resolved the problem. They never disputed our claim and sent the complaint up to the head office. Boy was I impressed, the New York Times really wanted me us as a customer.

But I often can’t imagine why. I always knew the ads were for the One Percent but I think I blocked out the fact that so are the houses, wine, clothes, most restaurant reviews and the vacations they write about. And it seems to be getting worse. I also noticed that full page ads for Tiffany’s, Bonwit Teller or Bloomingdale’s are juxtaposed to  stories about impoverished nations but never next to national or local news. I feel the ad placement is deliberate because expensive items next to the Neediest Cases might be a “tough sell.” Rob thinks the companies just want ads in the first ten pages of the paper and that happens to be the international section.

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On Sunday the second part of the weekend paper arrives. I open up the main section and snap a picture. I make my way through this section and test my ad theory. Then I move along to the Sunday Review where the only ads are for education jobs. I land on an editorial called “Sentenced to a Slow Death.” It begins with, “If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast…” I read about the needless life sentences of non-violent offenders that is costing $1.78 billion dollars for the lives of their collective incarcerations. This is why I read my local paper. The news is for everyone. We have to gerrymander through it to find what we’re interested in.

That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine inching a bar cart around my small lake house and saying, “My, isn’t she yar?” and hope someone is listening.

MOLOTOV COCKTAIL MIXED WITH LEAVES or LEAF BOMB

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In 2000 we moved from an apartment with no lawn responsibilities to our current lake house with a naïve perception of what lawn care entailed. The house sits one hundred and fifty feet above the lake at a steady incline. So steady that if you walk up to the house from the dock you’re out of breath.  In a previous post, Satan Zero Us One, I wrote about the challenges of mowing this lawn but all of that pales in comparison to leaf season. Just after the spring flowers pass and the trees are ripe with bright green leaves I pause and remind myself that this is the longest point in time when we can enjoy the benefit of the leafy trees and not have to think about raking. Leaf raking season lasts from the middle of October until the first week in December and no matter how much you rake and bag more leaves always seem to fall. One year we completed our leaf work on Christmas Eve.

That first autumn, the task began brightly as we piled into the station wagon and headed down to our then local hardware store to buy rakes.

“Oh, they’re so cute,” I cooed as I plopped two shrub rakes down next to the regular size rakes. I imagined our two young children heartily joining in the chore.

Ready to pay, Rob lifted a galvanized garbage can patterned with holes onto the counter.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Leaf burner,” the gruff hardware lady said, in a matter of fact tone that didn’t illicit any more comments from me. “Don’t forget to get a permit,” she added.

Dear reader, I know what you’re thinking. Leaf burning? Isn’t that illegal? Most places yes, but in lawless Putnam County it was legal and encouraged. Having a permit meant that we simply called the local sheriff and informed him we were commencing with a leaf burn and then called him back again when we had completed the task. I’m not sure what the phone call did to protect the town from a raging wildfire.

Rob’s idea was to rake all the leaves into the burn can, throw in a match or two and sit back while the fire did all the work.  This plan lacked some basic considerations. All the leaves still had to be raked into a central location to be close enough to pile into the burner which was the same amount of raking it would take if we stuffed all the leaves into paper leaf bags.  The only time saver was hauling the bags up to the curb. Our burn can was only twenty-five gallons which was equivalent to less than one packed paper leaf bag.

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The shrub rakes became swords until one was lost under a pile of leaves my seven-year-old daughter spent the day playing in. Our son Jackson raked just enough to stick around and watch the miracle of leaf burning.  It was a concept he had never thought about until that morning. Which meant I raked masses of leaves down hill to the burn site while Rob supervised the entire burn operation. The way he saw it, he would start burning leaves as fast as they arrived. After we had accumulated an enormous pile, but really a fraction of the sum total, the three of us peered into the can with holes.

“Why aren’t they burning?” Jackson asked.

Rob had already worked his way through half a box of large kitchen matches. “I need a stick so I can stir them. They need air.”

“Isn’t that what the holes are for?” I said.

“Don’t talk. Just find a stick, a long stick.”

Whenever Rob says, “Don’t talk,” you can be pretty sure he doesn’t have a clue about what he’s doing. Nevertheless a stick was procured and Rob stirred and stirred his smoldering cauldron as he continued to drop in lit matches.

“Maybe we need newspaper to get it going.” I suggested.

“I’m not even going to point out how idiotic that sounds.”

“You just did.”

Eventually he ditched the stick in favor of a shovel and started to turn the leaves over. After about an hour of this method the only fire he managed to generate was a few singed leaves and a heavy aroma of smoke on his clothes. At this point Rob declared it was time to really get this leaf burning going “Mario” style. Mario was Rob’s father, who believed that a little gasoline or naphtha could cure just about any predicament, including lighting a household barbeque or killing weeds. Rob went to fetch the gas can. “Now stand back,” he warned as he poured in a splash of gas. We all took one baby step back. He folded the mixture up with his shovel and tossed in a lit match.

What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. The instant the lit match hit the inside of the can a homegrown mushroom cloud explosion erupted upward about ten yards, knocking the four of us off our feet and onto our rear ends. The sound was so deafening it caused our ears to ring and it was several seconds before we even knew what had happened in order to react to the now blazing fire streaming out from the top of the burn can and out through each hole. Rob shook himself off, jumped to his feet and began to control the blaze with the small garden shovel. You could tell he had been raised to think fast in the event of a self-made disaster. Mario would have been proud.  In the end the gas did the trick and Rob and Jackson happily burned leaves until dinner.

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I know we’re lucky we all lived and the house didn’t burn down and it makes sense the county eventually outlawed the practice in 2010 but I look at this picture and I can’t help but feel nostalgic for that day.

The following year we purchased a leaf blower. The things we give up in the name of progress.

LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE

I haven’t been back to visit my father’s grave in Illinois since his funeral in 2007, so my sister’s e-mail containing an image of the stone was a welcomed sight. It’s a simple marker, slightly elevated from the grass containing his name and dates, the Janus logo and this line– Leave them wanting more. It’s a great line, especially for my father, who knew when to end a story, an argument, an advertisement or a eulogy. His strength lay in his often keen ability to self edit, whether written or spoken.

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Leave them wanting more can be applied to so many things in this time of excess and heightened self importance. Leave them wanting more, not taking more. Wanting and taking are polar opposites.

A lot of people today are clamoring for their own personal version of celebrity. They drop in at the local diner and share ten pictures of the event. They believe everybody who knows them needs to have this information.

“Heading off to an overdue appointment at the nail salon.”

“Why can’t we have ‘nut-free’ and ‘contains nuts’ tables at the school bake sale?”

“Just about to eat this monster donut!”

Not only do I not yearn for more, but find myself running from what is offered. I want to share in the lives of my friends and family, but mainly key events.

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My father’s memorial is the only connection I have to a now much altered community. When I was a small child, the town and surrounding area was awash in flat, black Illinois farm soil and patches of forgotten prairie pushed up against the encroaching but still distant suburban sprawl. The main street was quaint and two-bit with Swiss chalet store fronts and an old mansion serving as the library. The local diner had a twenty foot milk bottle sitting on the roof that said, “Joe’s.” But before I was out of middle school a large percentage of that rich soil was sold, paved and turned into auto dealerships.

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The town currently boasts having thirteen extremely large, new car lots. The town website proudly declares, “In Libertyville buying a car has never been easier!” At what price? And of course the milk bottle is gone for better or worse. Libertyville, where my father is buried, has never left anything alone which might explain how it became a wealthy upscale village that young professional families clamor to today. The town motto: Fortitudine Vincimus

“By endurance we conquer” says it all. They don’t want more because they took it all. I understand this is not particular to Libertyville. Most small communities that rest within commuting distance of a major metropolis strive for this achievement.

Except where I live. Noting the subheading of this blog, Navigating the world from a small lake near New York City, this is surprising.

When we moved here over thirteen years ago the business district was a sleepy, ramshackle collection of quaint, small businesses.  We had a decent hardware store, salons, a pharmacy, wine shop, auto repair, pet supply store, two post offices, a decent deli, pizza parlor and a number of professional offices. Today we consist of a biker bar, two nail salons, tanning salon, a bagel shop, a beading den, pharmacy and a liquor store that is struggling to the point of absurdity. Most of the businesses are stuffed into a large out of place blue office building that never should have been built. There’s a fine line between rural bliss and rural blight and we’ve reached it.Image

 

Libertyville destroyed it’s rural character by paving over the richest farm land in the world to make more parking spots. My town has retained it’s rural character but at the same time driven out most small businesses and left vacant, rotting storefronts that glare at visitors just on the other side of the town’s welcome sign. This is not the outcome of a bad economy but bad planning. Our lack of development has left us wanting more. Not always a good thing. Like everything in life we need a balance. Our town motto is Putnam Valley: The Jewel of Putnam County, which I really think they should reconsider. Too bad my Dad isn’t around to write a more appropriate one.

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