Christmas 2011

When I came home Sunday, there was a package waiting for me at my doorstep. Delighted and pleasantly surprised upon reading the name of the sender (a good friend who will not be named but is appreciated greatly), I dropped my bags inside and set about to open the USPS box to see what goodies awaited me. Slicing off the tape with scissors, I reached through some brown packing paper and pulled out a large Ziploc bags holding two smaller holiday bags. I squinted and peered through the narrow transparent portions of the bag, trying to figure out their contents.

Cookies, I surmised, turning them over till I could see. Ah, yes, I could see the wonderful doughy edges and corners now. Excellent.

It was at this point that my nose began to tickle. A particular strong odor was now present in the room. While not unpleasant nor disgusting, it was immensely potent and not one I recognized. I opened the ziploc bag in my hand and stuck my nose in to take a whiff. No, that’s not it, I thought as I set aside the bag and reached into the box once more. Rummaging through the paper, I felt another smaller sandwich bag at the bottom of the box. It was heavier than the larger bag and much more solid to my touch. As it cleared the edge of the box, it became very apparent that it was the odor source. It too held a holiday bag, although this one had split during the course of its journey. My scientist brain kicked in.

White. Looks like granular sugar. Smell powerful but don’t know what it is. No label on the bag.

Huh.

There I stood for a few minutes, turning this bag over and over while my brain  tried to match it to anything it could in vain.

Sugar? No. Crushed peppermint? Doesn’t smell like it. Salt? Why would she send a bag of salt? To keep the cookies fresh? Really? Hey, man, I just work here. You oughta kick this one up to Analysis.

Rather than spend any more time wondering, I texted my friend.

Me: Oh, thanks for the package! Merry Christmas! Saaaaaaay, I see two of the bags are cookies. What’s in the third bag?

The next day, I get a reply that only deepened the mystery.

Friend: Not sure

I look at the phone, quietly contemplating this new development. Was there a mistake? Did she send me dishwasher powder or some other cleaning agent by accident? (That’s another theory I came up with over time.) How many packages did she mail so that she would not be able to recall what she had put in mine?

Undeterred, I texted her back.

Me: You sent it to me!

Friend: Lol it’s a surprise! Just eat it!

Huh.

Well. Ok then!

After I got home that day, I grabbed the bag off my dining room table and examined it again. Still white, still granular looking, still very strong in odor. I’d say it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever smelled before, but as a man, my smell categories are limited to “masculine”, “not masculine”, and “other”. As it was not the clearly not the first and not immediately identifying itself as the second or third, it presented a quandary. But, having been assured that it was “a surprise” and that I should “just eat it”, I opened the sandwich bag.

While I thought the smell on the outside of the bag was very strong, cracking open the bag pushed the line upwards to “universe enveloping”. It would be akin to going from the scent of second hand smoke linger beneath your nose to taking the lit cigarette and plunging it upwards into your nasal cavities. The word “omnipresent” has yet to find a better non-divine example.

Needless to say, this created many doubts as to my friend’s assurances. My quickly established inner compromise was to take a singular grain onto the tip of my finger. I sniffed it once more as if that particular dot on my finger was the problem and not the hundreds of thousands if not millions of its brethren still sitting in the bag inches away. Nothing new was gained from this and so, in one swoop, I dabbed it on the middle of my tongue.

Oh. God.

It was neither sweet nor sour nor bitter nor salty. It was vile. I made an all vowel noise that universally signifies across the multitude of human cultures that what I had tasted was a very big mistake. In making a a b-line to the sink, I spit out what was left of the grain, all remaining saliva (contaminated or otherwise), and anything not firmly attached to gums or jawbone.

Surprised? Indeed, I was.

Now I was stuck with an immediate mental aftermath full of questions. What the hell did I just try to eat? When was the last time I pissed her off? Was she trying to poison me? (Historically, women are poisoners so this was a remote yet plausible possibility.) Or was this a recipe that had gone horribly, HORRIBLY wrong?

I settled on the last one as the most likely explanation as I dumped the bag into the trash. I could still smell it, so I pushed the bag way down in the trash bag in the hopes that the decaying kitchen garbage above it would mask the smell till I took the bag out. I took the time honored vow to thank her once more and then never mention it again.

Ever.

Six hours after our text conversation, I get another message from her.

Friend: I just realized what you were asking me about. The bag?  It’s bath salts.

That all vowel noise that I made when I tasted what I now discovered was bath salts? Yes, I made it again.

We then had a lovely text conversation about what it was like to taste bath salts (“horrific”) and how incredibly sorry she was for not labeling the bags. I discovered that the odor I did not recognize was in fact lavender (to which it was properly placed in the “not masculine” category). I rescued the bath salts from the trash, put it into a new sandwich bag, and am looking forward to using the bath salts in the proper manner in the near future.

As they say, all’s well that ends well. There were two important things to learn here:

  1. Label your all Christmas goodie bags since you never know how might try to eat them.
  2. I will try to eat anything.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, folks!

My Own Filter Failure

It’s been a long time coming, but I have to fess up and admit it: I am suffering from filter failure. In my dive into social media, I forgot one very important limitation: myself. As much as I wanted to FRIEND/FOLLOW/CIRCLE/RSS ALL THE PEOPLE, I crossed a line where the tool moved from being useful to information cacophony. With the ease of adding people and feeds, it’s not one of those situations where is becomes obvious that you have gone too far. No, it’s been building up for awhile and only in the last few weeks have I realized what I had done.

While unsubscribing to email lists and blogs is relatively painless and easy, there is a certain apprehension that fills me when it comes to the people on Twitter and Facebook. It’s the unfortunate paradox of not giving too much thought to following or accepting a friend request, yet really not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings by removing them from either. “Sure, I’ll be your friend, random internet quasi stranger!” is how it starts, but the negative connotations of exclusion and unfriending make it feel like the most public kind of snub. Perhaps it is the term ‘unfriending’ that makes it seem so dire and such a commentary on the relationship. There is no easy way of saying “I no longer want to be your friend, even though if I took time to examine the depth of our relationship I could only describe you as a remote acquaintance at best” because people will stop reading right at the comma. The rest of the sentence as well as the context and meaning is lost after the comma.

But, at the end of the day, if I don’t feel that a tool is useful, I will ultimately discard it. Since I want to keep them, it means that I will have to steel myself and dive headlong into lists of friends, followings, and circles to come out with something a bit better for myself. So, to a unknown number of good people out there, I say unto you, “Nothing personal, but I need to get back to where my social media works for me.”

Let the weeding begin. 

The Hounds of Winter

With the closing of this weekend, I’ve made it past the halfway point of what I can only call “that time of year”. As the trees change over and the days shorten, my thoughts turn towards the family and friends that I’ve lost in the stretch of time between the end of September and New Year’s Day. During this just over three month span over the years, I’ve had all of my grandparents pass away, some great aunts and a great uncle, both of my aunts, and family friends. It’s not quite every week that signals the anniversary of a passing, but enough so that with one date comes the expectation of the next one. The joke in our family is that our calendars switch from September to counting down the days till January.

I’ve had family pass away on the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve. I’ve been twice notified on Christmas Eve about a family member’s short term life expectancy. The only major holiday that is not touched by death is Halloween. Over the years it’s been a series of autumn funerals, some of which featuring snow for those in New England.

In dining with my parents this Thanksgiving, we found ourselves talking about how much we missed those people. As much as the tinge of death attaches itself to these holidays, I feel fortunate to have these close associations between the people and those days. It is a hearty reminder to me of remembrance (like Veteran’s Day), of being thankful for the people in my life (like Thanksgiving), of the joys and happiness of coming together as a family (like Christmas), and the promise of better times ahead (like New Year’s). While I wouldn’t say it is the best way to enhance the emotions of the seasons, it has been something that I’ve come to find as a unexpected boon over time. 

It’s not all doom and gloom; my brother and sister-in-law celebrate a wedding anniversary in November. (Hopefully, it will break the tradition of familial dying during this time period). I do hope everyone has a good holiday season, but pardon me if I don’t truly celebrate it till January 2nd.

Until then, I’ll be missing some people.

9/11: Ten Years Later

Today I spent the day in the same manner as I did ten years ago: at work. I thought that it would be a fitting tribute to the ten year anniversary. At the time, I was working in commercial horticulture at a company called Medford Nursery. It was a clear sunny warm day, the kind that is perfect for plant growth.

My most enduring memory of that day is revolves around the sky. The company is located between two regional airports and is on the landing path for McGuire Air Force base. All day long, there would be the hum of light aircraft and helicopters along with the occasional deep rumble of C130’s and other large military cargo aircraft. When the FAA ordered the grounding of all aircraft, my sky went silent. Nothing above save for the wisp of passing clouds. In accordance with events of the day, it was the sudden absence of something so prevalent that was hard to ignore that stands out for me.

One of the aspects that comes into sharp focus for me is how the people I know around me (both friends and acquaintances) were affected. A pair of friends who worked for an ambulance company went up to Jersey City and Hoboken so as to triage people as they came across the river. An acquaintance who worked for the Red Cross spent the next six months up in New York City tracking over one hundred vehicles while pulling twelve hours shifts. The dad of my best friend in college was a school guidance counselor and spent the day trying to help his students get in contact in their parents. The neighbor who had worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and attended eight funerals in the following weeks. A gaming friend whose family member was on the flight crew of one of the planes. I was not hit directly by the disaster, but it had hit the people around me.

The library was quiet today, especially for a Sunday. In the ten years between. I have traded one silence for another. And before the day is out, I will take another to reflect back on all those years, all those people, and what the time has brought us. Today is a time to remember those gone and tomorrow will be a time to set the path for those yet to come. Such as it is, such as it will always be.

“Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

The last half-week have been a bit all over the place.

Starting with last Thursday, Nancy Dowd and I presented at the ALA Virtual Conference. I’ve presented with Nancy before (well, I spoke at one of Nancy’s presentations) and I knew we were going to have a fun time. The phone conversations and emails we exchanged as we got ready for the presentation were a blast. I hope that excitement carried over to the presentation itself. (I’m thinking about recording it using Jing and posting it so people can see my portion at another time.)

With the presentation done, it was onwards to moving. I moved to the Bordentown area which puts me within walking distance of work. It’s a nice little apartment and I’m pretty much all settled in, but not without stressing myself out about the move, the timing of the truck rental, and the timing of Verizon to hook up my cable since it overlapped. I have some mighty awesome friends who came to help me; I owe them a debt of gratitude on this one!

The weekend was a mix of unpacking, shopping for all those missing things in the apartment, and just generally relaxing. I’m pretty much set now, having stocked the kitchen with food that I will try not to ignore in favor of convenience and other quick prepared foods.

Today was about going to into work in the morning and then reporting for jury duty in the afternoon. I was walking around Mount Holly where the county seat is for Burlington County when I managed to trip on a one inch curb and then do that lurching forward motion where you try to regain your balance. After a few steps, it was obvious that gravity was not in my favor and I was delaying the inevitable. I landed on my side and rolled, avoiding scrapping the hell out of my hands and knees but not my pride. So when I arrived at the jury duty room, I was sweating from the heat outside, dusty from the roll on the ground, and feeling the impact of the ground on various parts of my body. A good way to start the day.

As I was selected to serve on a jury, that’s all I can say about that for now. But I’m going to declare a holiday for myself while I perform my civic duty.

There is one bit of business I’d like to toss out there: a starter topic for Thursday’s Open Thread. If you got one, name it! I’ll write up a little blurb and post it on Thursday.

Son of a Son of a Sailor

As much as it is a Jimmy Buffett song, it also happens to be true for me.

My paternal grandfather went to the Coast Guard Academy before dropping out to build submarines for World War II. He was employed by Electric Boat in Groton Connecticut as an electrician, handling the wiring between the bridge and the rest of the submarine. Grandpa would describe working on sixteen hour shifts building them, taking them out into Montauk Sound, and diving ten feet at a time and checking all the wiring. Ten feet at a time, they would take the boat down and make sure everything worked and that the submarine was watertight. He did this for the duration of the war.

His time at Electric Boat also taught him to make coffee; specifically, he learned to make Navy coffee. This isn’t so much coffee as a water based caffeine delivery system, a concoction so strong and ill tempered that cappuccinos and espressos would see it coming and cross to the other side of the street. One time, when I was getting my dad a cup of the stuff (which he cut with liberal amounts of water so that he would not get the shakes), I poured in some milk. The healthy dose of milk disappeared under the surface without a hint of color change on the time; it was like the coffee had consumed the cream itself. As my grandpa had survived on this coffee for years, it was a family theory that he had outlived his life span due to the sheer volume of caffeine that resided in his system.

In the later years, he would watch the submarines making their way from the Navy base in Groton on the Thames river. From the hilltop across from the Coast Guard Academy, he’d observe the cadets maneuvering in their sailboats or taking Eagle out to sea. I can still see him now, sitting with legs crossed at the knee, puffing on his pipe and watching the business of the river go by.

My father had his own sailing adventures, minus the military involvement. As someone raised in the New London area, the river and the ocean were not far away. Whenever he got the chance, he’d go out sailing with my aunt on her sailboat. I remember vaguely as a kid that he took a sailing vacation for a week. When we went to pick him up afterwards, he had a goofy grin on his unshaven face, the kind one gets coming fresh out of an adventure.

This was not the only adventuresome streak my father had. During college and another time year later, he went out to his college buddy’s ranch to be a cowboy. Or, to make it a bit clearer using his term, a real cowboy. As in, rounding up and driving cattle, branding calves, mending fences, riding horseback, and all of the sweat and hard work that the movies rarely show. On that remote piece of plateau land in Arizona, he experienced the American Western life as few have known it in the intervening years.

Unlike sailing, my father continues to follow his love of the American West. He is a season pass holder for Cowtown Rodeo in Woodstown, NJ. (Yes, there is a rodeo in New Jersey. It’s the oldest weekly running rodeo in the country. And having attended it multiple times, it’s a quite a bit of Americana that should not be missed.) Every Saturday night during the summer, he drives down to see men ride bulls and horses, rope steers and calves, and women barrel race. It’s a professional rodeo and, having sat out there on the benches as the sun sets, it is just a bit of the cowboy culture transported to New Jersey.

As this is a Father’s Day post, I would be remiss to omit my maternal grandfather. He was a sailor of his own right, having learned to sail on the Cooper River and on Long Beach Island. His attempts to teach his children how to sail resulted in excellent family stories about emergence of personality quirks and very little actual seamanship. Nevertheless, my grandfather would go sailing with his friends in and around Barnegat Light as the sea and the family vacation needs saw fit.

In the last years of his life, he and my grandmother took a river cruise with my great aunt and uncle down the Hudson. The boat made its lazy, meandering way while the four of them enjoyed the scenery over the course of a week. I cannot remember where they started from, but I remember this trip because they were set to dock and disembark in New York City on Tuesday, September 11th. (Yes, that Tuesday. Needless to say, they did not dock there.)

While I really do like Jimmy Buffett song, I find that common thread of sailing in my immediate paternal forbearers to be apropos. There is a certain call of the sea, a romanticizing aspect that intrigues one by invoking adventure and curiosity. The harsh reality of the actual voyage carries its own burden for each person who undertakes it, resulting in a clash of ideals versus reality. With that said, I guess it would be a fair comparison to that of being a father. Though heavy with stories, real and otherwise, there is still nothing that compares to the actual voyage.

To all the dads out there, a Happy Father’s Day. I’ll give the last lines to Jimmy.

Where it all ends I can’t fathom my friends
If I knew I might toss out my anchor
So I cruise along always searchin for songs
Not a lawyer a thief or a banker

Way Down in the Hole

Awhile back, my brother lent me his copies of season 1 and 2 of the HBO series The Wire. You’d really have to be living under a pop culture rock not to have at least heard of this series as it is commonly cited as the best television series ever. (The emphasis does not originate from me.) I never got a chance to watch them on DVD, but when the HBO GO app became available for the iPad, I started watching the series.

“Give it three episodes,” my brother said. “If you don’t like it after that, then you can give up on it.” It’s a pretty reasonable time frame, the same way Nancy Pearl advises that you give books a certain number of pages before you can put them down for not liking them. I lost interest in The Sopranos after a season and a half so it’s not the first time I’ve given up on a series with critical acclaim. (The Sopranos is just part of hundreds of partially watched series that I’ve managed to collect over the years.)

I ended up watching Season 1 over the course of two days. Season 2 was more spaced out over a week. I just completed Season 3 last night with a marathon session at the end for the last four episodes stretching into the wee hours of the morning. I’m looking forward to starting Season 4, but I always wonder when I watch one episode if something is going to compel me to watch one or two or five after that. I have to be careful!

For myself, the series hits all the notes I look for in a television show: good acting, good plot, interesting characters, and (most important) a story arc that has an end to it. I want to emphasize the last part because as someone who watched a lot of television in the 1990’s there were so many series that just went on and on with no end in sight. The idea that “we’ll keep making them so long as people keep watching them” left me with no sense of actual closure to the series. And when I mean closure, I mean in the sense of “this is the end of the story, even if there are some questions that remain unanswered”. I’m sure you can think of a long running series that had to finish up because it was cancelled; I just hate when that happens.

My question to you is this: what do you look for in a story series? (Be it books, television, movies, or whatnot.) What’s your je ne sais quoi that makes things worth following? What makes you not follow a series?