Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blog Fest report, Spring 2011 edition

NEPA Blog Fest (Spring 2011 Edition) has come and gone.  For various reasons, I didn't get out of the house until after the event starting time of 6:00, by which time Michelle (who got there ahead of time) had texted me to be sure I was coming.  I picked my way along River Road / Main Street / Plank Road / South Main Street (the same street wears all these names between Plains and Pittston), noting the places where the Susquehanna River was lapping right up against the road, making a mental note to take another way back and hoping and praying that the river wouldn't experience a surge while we were all a stone's throw away at Rooney's.

I parked my car in front of the now boarded-up Valley Cat Rescue and walked a hundred feet or so down the street to Rooney's.  When I entered at 6:40 I was surprised to find the place half-empty - previous events had been jammed from start to finish.  I wondered if maybe the word hadn't gotten out. I myself had missed the initial announcement, as it was cleverly hidden away in a blog post on Dave Yonki's site entitled The LuLac Edition #1515, March 21st, 2011 - not exactly a title that screams "Blog Fest is coming!"  This post referenced a post on Joe Valenti's Pittston Politics - which, due to an unfortunate problem with blog architecture, does not have an RSS or Atom feed, and so his posts never appear among the list of most recently updated blogs.  (The bottom line is, if you're not making a point to read every word of every entry on these blogs, you might miss something and never be aware that it had been posted.) Even I had only mentioned this event in passing on a Facebook update when I found out about it a week or two after the announcement.

But Michelle had taken this ball and run with it.  She wrote up a post on NEPA Blogs that announced the event to the world, and especially to readers of NEPA Blogs.She posted about the event to the NEPA Bloggers group that she created on Facebook. Then she used her social networking skills with that newfangled Twitter thing to spread the word to the Twitter followers she has been gathering for NEPA Blogs.  She also contacted local media outlets about the event, got a notice listed in The Weekender, clued in some contacts at local news station WBRE, and just generally made sure that news of the event was out there, even among people whose primary interest in the world of blogging is not political.*

So I was puzzled by the absence of people at the event.  I saw Dave Yonki and Joe Valenti, who had organized the event and publicized it with their political contacts, sitting at a table chatting with a few people I didn't recognize.  I spotted a friend of Gort's and asked him if Gort - the founder of these events and the third co-blogger on NEPA Blogs, who is currently on hiatus from blogging - might be coming, but he wasn't sure.  Then I spotted Michelle on the other end of the bar and went to speak with her.  She told me that the place actually had been crowded from about 6:00 to 6:30, filled with candidates who had then headed out to a 3rd District event in Dupont.  Suddenly she spotted a familiar face where I had just been standing - Gort had arrived!  Now it was a party!

Michelle and I stepped down to talk with Gort, and I was called aside by Dave Yonki.  Before I could get to Gort I was chatted up by several of the candidates who had trickled in and were working the crowd.  (For a possibly complete list see Dave Yonki's after-Fest post.) I passed out Blog Cards and collected campaign cards and literature, and chatted with the charming, dedicated, and driven daughter of one of out local bloggers concerning her human rights legal efforts.  WBRE showed up with a camera crew, acting on Michelle's tip, and conducted some interviews that appeared on the 11:00 news - but have not, as far as I can tell, been posted to their website,

Unfortunately, while more and more politicians appeared as the night wore on, no additional non-political bloggers showed up, making the night one of mostly cocktail-party chatter between political bloggers and the politicians who are running for office.  Even more unfortunately, Rooney's kitchen and waitstaff were apparently overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who had showed up and decided that they would like something to eat.  Political chit-chat can work up an appetite, something I hope they keep in mind the next time there's an event held there.

From a political blogging point of view I suppose this was a relatively successful event, despite the unfortunate conflict with the event in Dupont.  (This was not the only conflict of the night, however, as the Luzerne County Historical Society dinner and the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association benefit Black and Blue Ball were being held last night as well.)  I would like very much to see future blogger gatherings where the focus is not on politics, but on the bloggers and their blogs.  Too often some people think of political blogs as the only sorts of blogs out there.  A look at the roster of blogs that have been added to NEPA Blogs over the years will show that there are many interests in the local blogging community beyond politics.  There are blogs about religion, photography, shopping, employment, beer, sports, cars, art, history, television - the whole scope of human experience, including and in addition to politics.  I hope to see some of these bloggers at future get-togethers!

Other accounts of NEPA Blog Fest (Spring 2011 Edition):
Blogfest turns out great crowd on Pittston Politics

*Michelle is also responsible for bringing NEPA Blogs out of an extended funk, resulting in more posts and more sites added in April 2011 than in the previous twelve months combined.

Friday, April 29, 2011

NEPA Blog Fest tonight, April 29!

If you're not all tuckered out from waking up bright and early to watch some royal wedding, you should definitely consider attending the NEPA Blog Fest (Spring 2011 edition) on Friday, April 29 at Rooney's Irish Pub in Scranton starting at 6:00 PM.

Here is the announcement as it appeared on The Lu Lac Political Letter's blog:

Blogfest set for April 29
By: Joe Valenti
Mark your calenders.

Area bloggers will be holding another blog fest Friday, April 29, 2010. This will be your chance to meet the face behind the keyboard. It will held again be at Rooney’s Irish Pub on Main Street in Pittston starting at 6:00PM. Stay as long as you’d like. Last time around Gort helped organize the shindig. Gort, however, has experienced a long case of writer’s block and hung up his keyboard.

Dave Yonki, of the LuLac Political Newsletter has offered to step up to the plate and lend a helping hand. Our past two events were well attended. Last spring we had probably over 150 come through the door and that was an off year election. This year we expect an even larger turnout considering the excitement with this year’s primary.

Gort always laid down the ground rules:
Admission is free, no speeches, you must buy your own drinks and you must wear clothes.

Rooney's Irish Pub is located at 67 South Main Street.  South Main is one way heading northeast, so if you find that you've overshot Rooney's, just turn left to circle back along Kennedy Boulevard, the street closest to the river.  (And let's hope the Susquehanna stays in its banks!)

Hope to see you there!

Blossoms, storms, and floods

Note overexposure of flowers.
Note presence of snow a few days later.
Spring is here. Has been here for a while, actually, though Winter didn't want to let go. We were hit with several late snowstorms, including one at the end of March. I have some photos of daffodils in a Guinness bottle on my memory card (impossible to get the settings right for that photo; when the bottle looks good, the flowers are horribly overexposed) followed by photos of a snow-covered landscape.

Cherry blossoms
Forsythia blossoms.  Many have already fallen.

The forsythia came into bloom a week or so ago, along with the cherry trees. The blossoms have started to rain down already. I hope that they have attracted their pollinators and will continue on with their life cycles.

Meanwhile, storms have blown through Northeastern Pennsylvania this week.  They were part of the same chains of storms that brought so much death and destruction to the south, but for us they amounted to some rain, some lightning, and some wind.  OK, a lot of each of those, with some flooding and downed trees and blocked roads.  Still, I didn't think they were heavy enough or sustained enough to be a problem.

I was wrong.

Yesterday I went on a tour of a house that is being built to function (almost) completely off the grid, with electricity generated by a solar array and a wind turbine.  It's become a running joke that horrific weather has plagued each of our tours of this location.  The first tour was stymied by a very heavy snowstorm that closed roads for a while; the second attempt went off as planned, but was accompanied by such winds that we thought the house would be blown off its foundations. The third tour was yesterday, the morning after the first wave of massive storms. I advised the woman running these tours that her next scheduled tour may be interrupted by an asteroid strike.

On my way back from the tour I meandered through a few places between there and here.  At one point I crossed the Water Street Bridge in Pittston, and I was blown away by what I saw.  The Susquehanna was high and running fast,  It was also a shade of bright orange I can't recall having ever seen before.  I took a serpentine course from there that took me back along the new Eighth Street Bridge in Pittston, across the river on Route 309 in Wilkes-Barre, and then finally back to Nanticoke across the Nanticoke-West-Nanticoke Bridge.  Each time I was astonished and a little terrified by what the river looked like.

Today I had a laundry list of things that needed getting done.  The last of those things would get wrapped up an hour or so before sunset.  This held out the promise of long shadows on the river and a good photographic opportunity.  I took it.

The river actually seems to have settled down a bit since yesterday.  The color is more like coffee with lots of milk added, but debris of all sorts is floating downriver.  Note the flooded flood plain (the Nanticoke Flats) in the background, beyond the row of trees.  This is looking south from the West Nanticoke side.

It is hard for a still picture to capture the speed and turbulence of the river.  But this one did capture my shadow on the bridge.  Note the John S. Fine Bridge in the background, currently being reinforced to handle the stresses of hundreds or thousands of Marcellus Shale-related trucks each day.  This is looking east, as you may have guessed from the shadow and the fact that I mentioned that this was an hour or so before sunset.

Looking north back towards West Nanticoke.

The river is expected to reach its maximum height sometime tomorrow, though this prediction was made before last night's storms.  It has not rained since this morning.  We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lily and Poinsettia Catholics

Easter is a big family visiting time, almost as big as Christmas.  Why, I'm not sure.  Maybe it's the Spring weather that puts people in a mind to travel to the lands of their births and visit with their long-estranged ancestors. And, quite often, their long-estranged churches.

It's a well-known fact that a significant portion of Catholics are actually what are called "Lily and Poinsettia Catholics," people who only find themselves inside a church twice a year, once at Christmas and again at Easter.  The proof is in the packing: on these two days of the year almost every Catholic church is filled to bursting.  It is possible that many of the people in these churches are actually visitors from out of town, regular churchgoers in their own parishes who wish to participate in services with their families.  But if this were the case, it would stand to reason that there would have to be a certain number of churches that would find themselves depopulated at these times, as their congregations attend services elsewhere.  But anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case, that instead almost every church finds itself crammed beyond capacity on these days.

The Catholic parishes of Nanticoke have experienced consolidation in recent years.  Church buildings have closed, and where once there were numerous parishes throughout the city and its outskirts, now there is a single Catholic parish with two worship sites, with the former Holy Trinity serving as the primary site and the former St. Mary's - my home parish - serving as the alternate site.  Beautiful churches with proud traditions and rich histories - St. Stan's, St. Joe's, St. Francis, Holy Child - now stand deconsecrated and empty, stripped of their fixtures and ornaments - or in the case of St. Francis, completely demolished.

And why?  Because dwindling parish rolls could not justify keeping so many churches open.

Fair enough.  A church is a big, expensive building to maintain, and if you have only a handful of parishioners dropping money in the collection basket, it may be impossible to keep the lights on.  Though almost anyone affected will tell you that consolidation went too far, resulting in overcrowded services and overpacked parking lots.* And that's on a typical Sunday.

This Easter was insane.

My sister was in for the holiday, and she and my mom headed out to church separately from me.  They left at about 9:10 for the 9:30 mass a mile across town.  I left the house at about 9:20.

The scene that I came upon looked like a carnival.  People in their Easter Sunday finery were milling about in front of the church.  (I wore my typical clothes - a Henley, jeans, and a black raincoat, with a pair of black dress shoes added as a nod to formality.) Cars were everywhere.  I had to park two blocks away and hike up a hill to get to the church.  Halfway up I saw my sister walking along another hill; she had dropped off our mom and parked three blocks away.

As I approached I saw numerous people walking away from the church - they had decided that they were not going to do this, that they would go to another mass elsewhere or maybe none at all.  As I got closer to the church I saw people stationed on the steps, and on the front landing of the church; perhaps they were planning to stay there through the mass, I don't know.  When I entered the church the vestibule was crammed with people, and more people were sitting on the steps leading up to the choir loft.  I had to get up there, so I mumbled apologies and heaved myself up the steps past them, all the while puffing like a steam engine from my recent hike.

The choir loft was more of the same.  Where normally between two and five choir members and maybe two dozen kibitzers would be scattered about the loft, over a hundred people were crammed in the elevated area, filling the pews and the chairs and all the available floor space.  I took up a position at the railing amongst a sea of unfamiliar faces.  I would stand through the mass.  Heck, I used to stand for twelve hours at a time at work; one hour at church wouldn't kill me.

The pews below were full.  The side aisles were full of people.  Normally, I am told, the church has a capacity of 400 people, and most masses have half that number or less in attendance.  On this day there were over 575 in it.**  I recognized maybe one face in every eight.

I have no idea who these extra people were.  Some were visitors, of course, extended families home for the holiday to see their parents or grandparents.  But many, I think, were people who just can't be bothered to  go to church most weekends, but feel that Easter is somehow special and important.

Ironically, the standard Catholic mass is a recreation of the events of Holy Week and especially Easter.  Opening prayers are followed by readings from the Bible - one from the Old Testament (or, between Easter and Ascension Thursday, the Acts of the Apostles), one from the New Testament (except the Gospels), and a reading from the Gospels.  Responsorial Psalms, the Prayer of the Faithful, then the Liturgy of the Eucharist, recounting the Last Supper through the Resurrection. Finally the mass climaxes in Communion, followed by final prayers and a sending forth.  It's the same routine on Easter as it is on any other Sunday. 

The injunction on Catholics is to attend mass every Sunday.  There's nothing magical about Christmas and Easter. People who just go to mass twice a year do their parishes a disservice in two ways.  By displacing regular churchgoers at these holiday masses, they deny some people the opportunity to attend mass as they normally do every other week.  And by not being in attendance the rest of the year, they help contribute to the low attendance rates that have resulted in church closings, consolidation, and overcrowding.  If all the Lily and Poinsettia Catholics had been attending services regularly throughout the year, Nanticoke wouldn't be down to just two churches.

*A similar consolidation of Catholic schools went through a bit earlier, spearheaded by the same now-former bishop who forced parish consolidation on the diocese.  But an explicit purpose of school consolidation was the reduction of  enrollment: the total available student space at the consolidated schools was smaller than the total enrollment pre-consolidation.  It seems illogical and irrational to attempt to pare back the total number of church-goers through parish consolidation.  But perhaps that was, in fact, part of Bishop Martino's plan.

**There are twenty rows of pews on each side of a central aisle.  There are hat hooks in each pew (for holding hats, of course) - twelve in each pew, except for the front three, which have only space for ten hat hooks to allow for wheelchairs and/or maneuvering space around a casket during funerals.  Assuming one (fairly skinny) person per hat hook, that gives a capacity of 2 x ((17x12)+(3x10)) = 2 x (204+30) = 2x234 = 468 people in the pews, plus maybe another 60 or so in the choir loft.  So I think 575 may have been an underestimate.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Still yet another nightmare

I went to bed around 12:30 last night.  Maybe a little later.  I spent most of the last two years working an all-night shift from 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM, and my body still hasn't resumed a "normal" sleep pattern.  I don't know if I've gone to bed before 12:30 once since I lost my job in December.  I finally fell asleep sometime after 1:00 AM.

By 2:15 AM I was awake.  Wide awake.  I wanted to get up, do stuff, maybe call someone.  I didn't want to go back to sleep.

I had had a nightmare.  It didn't start out as one.  It started as a weird science-fiction social commentary.  Aliens had come to Earth.  Only they weren't menacing or technologically superior or anything.  They were just - weird. They looked like Fleshy the cat from the comic strip Monty: big eyes, long muzzles, spindly limbs, bad posture.  They took up residence in the attics of abandoned houses.  Nanticoke sports plenty of these, and there were some living in the attic of the house across the street from my mom (which, curiously, is not abandoned in real life.)

The aliens had apparently been on Earth long enough that they were barely considered a curiosity, more a sort of nuisance.  Some neighborhoods have houses that become infested with bats, and the bats will fly around the neighborhood near the house.  This was something like that.  People would be like, "Oh, yeah, there are aliens in the attic of that house, they must have a nest or something."  But no one gave them much more thought.

Then the pink slime came.

At work, in a department I worked in when I first started, we had a water fountain.  This was back before every department had its own water cooler.  One day we noticed a pink slime around the business end of the water fountain, stretching toward the drain.  I asked what this was.  Nobody knew.  I pressed the issue.  Could this be a safety issue?  Somebody looked into it and came back with an answer: amoebas.  Could be cleaned up with bleach.  Probably not a safety issue, but, whatever.

That's what this was like.  A thin pink slime that began to appear on windows, around window seals, on doorways, every outside surface.  It was thin and slightly sticky, and no one knew what it was, but everyone assumed it was harmless.  Only there seemed to be more of it each day.  After a while it seemed to be raining down, softly, gently.  Then people noticed it seemed to be especially concentrated on the houses where the aliens had taken up residence.

After a while people began to get concerned.  The sky was developing a pinkish cast.  The alien houses were now surrounded by puddles of this stuff, and the puddles were flowing out onto the streets and into the yards of neighboring houses.  Everything had a film of pink slime, and now it was seeping in around the edges of windows. 

Then the roads started to disappear. Where the pink slime touched them they crumbled and started to show patches of dirt and grass between the broken asphalt.  By the time people started to think about evacuating many roads were gone, replaced by tracks of dirt and grass and pebbles of asphalt.

Everybody decided to evacuate.  But where to?  The pink slime was everywhere at once.  Highways were jammed with cars going both ways, with everybody trying to get to somewhere other than where they were.  My mom wanted to evacuate to a building not far from us, but the road there was gone, and the car couldn't navigate what the road had become.

(UPDATE, 7/28/2011: Last night I remembered a detail I must have forgotten about previously...or decided not to mention. The morning of the day that my mom and I were planning to evacuate, I went to her room and found her dead in bed. I didn't know what to do. There was no one to call, of course, and I felt if I took her outside to bury her I would just be giving her over to the pink slime. But I didn't want to just leave her there know, rot. So I found every blanket in her room, and every blanket in the house, and buried her in her bed, under dozens of blankets and sheets and quilts and beach towels, in a stack two feet thick at least and sealed against the air. And then I set out on my own, with no direction or purpose in mind, and no particular reason to go on.

I also remember that somehow my mom had a long-range plan to get to Mount Airy Lodge. This was a big honeymoon resort in the Poconos in the 50's and 60's, fell into decay and disuse in the 80's and 90's, and was only reborn recently as a gambling resort. She remembered it as a happy place, and wanted to get there. It seemed like as good a destination as any.)

I woke up about then, filled with a sense of dread and hopelessness.  I tried to listen to the sounds of the night through my open bedroom window, but Nanticoke was unusually silent; even the neighborhood wind chime symphony was taking a break.

I did eventually mange to get back to bed.  The nightmare did not return.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Hoarder

This was supposed to be a short-short, but it grew long.  This is a first draft, more or less, written on the fly.  I got most of the ideas I've been tossing around into it, though there's one bit I couldn't shoehorn in.

This is Copyright 2011 by Harold Jenkins.  Steal it from me and I'll rip your arms off.

"I realize this is a difficult time for you, Mr. Johnson," the young woman said, "and I want to assure you that I am here to help you come to terms with what is happening as gracefully as possible."

She sat across from him in a musty old armchair.  His armchair, next to a small table and a lamp.  He sat dejectedly on a threadbare sofa, his head down, his arms hugging his chest, wearing the casual clothes of an old man with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The young lady was smartly dressed, perhaps more smartly than she might have been had she known that she were going to be called out to such a dingy, musty location.  Her hair was cut in a fashionable short cut, and she wore the popular half-moon reading glasses that likely as not were just flat panes of glass.

"You must have been aware, sir, that what you were doing is against the law.  Such a waste of resources, and space, and a fire hazard to boot.  And a health hazard."  The workmen moving around them wore body suits and gloves, hair covers and masks.  No knowing what they might stir up.

"You don't have to do this," the old man said.  The woman looked him over.  What is he, in his late sixties, maybe his seventies?  He looks old, whatever his age.  It'll all be in the record, anyway. "They're not hurting anyone.  They're not bothering anyone.  They're mine and I love them."

"One or two would be...a peculiarity," the woman said, her fingers dancing on her pad as she spoke.  "But you have...what, do you have any idea how many you have?"

"I don't know, I never counted them," he said bitterly.  "A thousand, maybe more.  I don't know exactly."

"And look at the condition they're in.  Here, this one."  She turned to a box that one of the workmen had dropped off for her earlier.  "Look at it.  It's a mess.  It's falling apart.  Probably full of bugs.  Have you ever even read it?"

He laughed.  "That one, yes, that is old."  He took the book from her gently, held it in his hands, opened it.  "This was a reader I used in second grade.  A baby book, I called it.  It was so far beneath what I was reading on my own.  But I still read it.  It has some great old stories in it.  'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' - the Norwegian version of the story, I recently discovered. 'Trip, trap, trip, trap!'  Did you read it when you were growing up, Miss..."

"...Reeves," she finished.  Doctor Reeves, actually, but she didn't press the issue.  No need, really.  "I can't say that I recall, exactly. Did it involve a bridge?"

"Yes, yes!" he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up.  "And a troll lived under the bridge, and wanted to eat the goats, and the first goat was the littlest, and said..."

"Hardly appropriate for a children's reading lesson, I think.  But, Mr. ...Johnson, do you really feel that it's appropriate for a man your age to be holding onto a book that he first read some sixty years ago?"

He looked at her, his eyes squinting slightly.  "Do you remember the fairy stories from your childhood, Miss Reeves?  The stories you loved when you were growing up?"

She looked hard at him.  "Mr. Johnson, I am not the one being evaluated here, you are."

"Humor me.  Do you remember, say, 'Hansel and Gretel'?  Two little bastards break into a witch's house made of candy, start to eat it, she comes home, she tries to throw them in an oven, and then they throw her in the oven instead and get away?"

She smiled grimly.  "Yes, that sounds familiar, I suppose."

"I'm guessing that electronic doodad you're playing with can call up books and stories, right?"

"Of course, Mr. Johnson.  Easiest thing in the world.  Why you can't embrace such a thing..."

"Look it up.  Look up 'Hansel and Gretel.' It's a children's story, take you two minutes to read.  Look it up and tell me how it ends."

She hesitated.  "Humor me.  Please," he said.  "You're evaluating me. Take two minutes to do this. Please."

She looked it up.  It wasn't a normal function of her pad, to use it as an e-reader for children's stories, so it took her a few seconds to call it up, but soon she had it.

Two minutes later Johnson spoke up.  "So.  How did it end?  Witch in the oven? After she tried to toss our plucky child heroes in?"

Dr. Reeves looked up at him over the top of her glasses.  "Obviously you have misremembered those details."

"Nonsense!" he roared.  "The story's been changed!  They've all been changed! The story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff - now there's no troll, it's an old man, and he doesn't want to eat them, he wants to charge them for passage!"  He held up the book, shook it angrily.  "But the story didn't change in here!  It's the same as when I first read it, sixty-three years ago this November!" 

"Let's move on," she said.  She did not try to take the book from him.  "Now, this..." She picked up a massive box, a slipcase containing two books.  "'Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,'" she said, reading from the spines.  "'Volume I, A-M.  Volume II, N-Z.'"  She dropped it back into the box with a thud.  "A dictionary.  There are dictionaries online, you know."

"They're crap!" he said, excited again.  The children's reader tumbled out of his hand and landed between his slippered feet, just missing his instep.  "Unreliable crap! This is based on the definitive dictionary, the Oxford Eng..."

"Excuse me, Dr. Reeves."  One of the workmen was standing in a doorway holding a large box.  "These appear to be part of a set.  Thought you might want to have a look."

"Bring them over here."  He dropped the box near her and went back to the task of clearing out the old man's musty library. "'World Book Encyclopedia,' she read.  She casually flipped it open, moved through the first few pages.  'Copyright 1997.'  Rather old information, don't you think?  Out of date?"

"Encyclopedic entries written by the leading authorities on each subject!  Carefully researched, thoroughly reviewed, meticulously edited and checked for factual accuracy..."

"Yes, yes," she cut the old man off.  "The appeal to authority.  One so-called expert writes an entry, and that's the gospel, at least until whenever the next revision was.  All this information is online, up-to-date and constantly checked and revised."

"Every fact and its opposite is online!" he shouted, and then he sank his head into his hands.

"Perhaps someone will find some historical value in them.  But speaking of gospel..." she reached into the first box again.  "Look at this thing.  It's a mess.  It's held together with, what, duct tape?  It's falling apart!"

"It's the old family Bible!" Johnson cried, a new emotion flooding his voice.  "Passed down through generations!  It has our family tree!  My parents, my grandparents filled it grandfather's parents..."

"You have a sentimental attachment to ink marks on decaying paper," Dr. Reeves said coldly.  "There are hundreds of versions of the Bible available online.  And if they left any traces, there will be records of your ancestors online as well."  She held the book like it was a dessicated squirrel found under the front steps.  "This...this is just...garbage."

Now there were tears in his eyes.  "Did you know," he said, "that the word 'Bible' means 'Book?'  I'm willing to bet you somehow missed that in all your years of education, Doctor."

"Yes, as in bibliophile.  An interesting segue into our next exhibit.  A bit of pornography about an older man and a teenage girl?"

"'Lolita' is not pornography!  It's brilliant literature!  Nabokov was a genius of the English language, a language that was not his native tongue, I'll have you know!  His command of foreshadowing, his main character thinking he knows more than we do, when in fact...Have you even read the book?  Ever?"

"It's pornography for pedophiles.  I wouldn't let that trash manifest itself on my screen even if I could find a reputable source for it, which I'm sure you cannot."

"No.  No."  His head hung down again, but now his arms rested limply on his knees.  "My books...what will be done with them?"

"They won't go to waste.  Most will be recycled.  Wood pulp is more valuable than it was back when these things were printed, you know.  Some that have historical value will be scanned and added to the ether.  Everyone will be able to see what you have been keeping to yourself all these years." 

"And me?  And my house, my parents' house, my grandparents' house?  What about that?"

She looked around.  "This place will be opened up.  'Boarders not Hoarders,' you know.  This old house will provide a home to three families, over a dozen people who have nowhere so pleasant to stay.  You will be well taken care of.  Society will not toss you on a garbage dump - or stick you up on a shelf, never to see the light of day."

Johnson shook his head.  "My books, my books...I loved them all.  I can't believe you're taking them all from me."

"Not to worry," she said.  "I'm sure you've already forgotten most of the titles.  The rest...most of the rest you'll be able to call up on your e-reader to revisit whenever you wish."  She made a few final entries on her screen about a recommended course of treatment for the crazy old man, then snapped the pad neatly shut.

"I don't have an e-reader," he said, his voice weary, defeated.

"Well," Dr. Reeves said, smiling slightly, sitting up straight in the armchair.  "That is a problem."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

BlogFest 2011 is Friday, April 29!

Joe Valenti of Pittston Politics and Dave Yonki of The LuLac Political Letter have announced that the Spring 2011 edition of BlogFest will take place Friday, April 29 at Rooney's Irish Pub in Pittston starting at 6:00 PM.

Blogfest set for April 29 on Pittston Politics

The Lu Lac Political Letter: The LuLac Edition #1515, March 21st, 2011

In the past there have been numerous gatherings of local bloggers, but last year's events in March and September were the first to also feature large numbers of politicians and/or their posses, to the extent that I thought of the events as politician/blogger mixers.  For such a potentially politically-charged event, the atmosphere was surprisingly laid-back, and several politicians remarked that the event was very friendly and relaxing.  As Joe Valenti points out, the ground rules set by Gort - the original organizer of these gatherings - are straightforward:   Admission is free, no speeches, you must buy your own drinks and you must wear clothes.

If you'd like to meet the people who write many of the blogs in Northeastern Pennsylvania, if you're a blogger who wants to rub elbows with your fellow bloggers, if you'd like to have a word with some of the candidates running for office, or if you're a candidate looking to have a nice chat with some of the leading political bloggers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, stop in at Rooney's Irish Pub at 67 South Main Street in Pittston on Friday, April 29 starting at 6:00 PM!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Check your balances, save your receipts

For reasons regular readers of my blog are well aware of, I'm keeping a very close watch on my finances.  Juggling money, making sure my checking account doesn't get overdrawn, making sure money is where it should be, making sure checks are clearing.

I have insurance, for the moment, through COBRA.  This is a very expensive way of doing things, and shortly after my initial enrollment in the program I was informed that I would have to re-select my elections as part of my former company's "open enrollment."  I was informed of this seven days before the deadline, and didn't think I would have enough time to get the forms in the mail to ensure delivery in time.  So I filled out the forms, wrote out my check for the new, increased monthly bill for April, put everything in an envelope and made the long, horrible trip up to my former place of employment to drop it off in person.

A week later I got a confirmation of my new elections.  But the check that I dropped off never cleared.

I've been checking my bank account regularly to see when my Federal income tax refund shows up (it hasn't yet) and to verify which checks have cleared.  All of the checks I have written out have cleared or are in the process of clearing except my April COBRA payment.  Earlier this week I contacted my benefits department to ask about this, and they promised to look into it.  As of the follow-up call I made on Thursday they hadn't located it.  So I sent another check.  I'm hoping my COBRA won't get cancelled.


Meanwhile, my car is due to have its state inspection by the end of this month.  I dropped my car off a while ago to have the side-view mirror replaced at the same service station where I get my annual inspections done.  The owner and chief mechanic told me that I would need to get my muffler replaced before I could pass inspection.

No problem, I figured.  I had a new muffler installed back in July of 2008 at one of those national chains that gives a "lifetime warranty": buy the muffler once, and get it replaced for just the cost of labor.

I had some problems when I had the muffler installed.  First they recorded my Toyota Tercel as an Oldsmobile.  Then they informed me that they would have also have to replace my catalytic converter - and like an idiot I let them, without insisting on getting the old one back.  (By the time I realized my error, they told me it was too late, that they had already discarded the platinum-filled component.  Riiight.)  Then I had to take the car back within two weeks because the entire system was rattling like it was about to fall off.  They resolved this by adding a bracket which reduced my ground clearance to about three inches.

I called them yesterday about getting the muffler replaced, and they told me they didn't have any record of me in their system.

I'm a little funny with receipts.  Some of them go into my pocket, where my body heat cooks the thermal paper to illegibility.  Some of them go into a Very Safe Place, to be forgotten and lost forever.  Some of them I actually stick in a useful place.  The receipt from my muffler, I convinced myself, was in a Very Safe Place: inside the rarely-used right-hand section of my medicine cabinet/bathroom mirror.  Unfortunately, when I went to check there some time ago, the receipt was nowhere to be found.  It wasn't until a few months ago that I discovered it in an unlikely spot: in a well-labeled envelope tucked under my visor next to my registration and proof of insurance.

After I spoke to the muffler shop I ran out to my car to get the receipt.  I checked it for errors.  My name was correct.  My make and model of my car were correct.  But my address was listed as my house number combined with the address of the muffler shop, and my phone number was almost my cell phone number, with one random digit changed.  I called the muffler shop back, and we used my incorrect phone number to look up the record, and bingo, there I was.  Why didn't I show up on the initial check?  Nobody knew.

The bottom line is, if I had not saved that receipt, I would not have been able to take advantage of the "lifetime warranty," because of numerous errors in the muffler shop's computer system.  So: save those scraps of paper.  You never know when you'll need them.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Diamond's Candy Shoppe is back - for a limited time!

One of the things that made Nanticoke special for much of my life was Diamond's Candy Shoppe.  A fixture since long before I was born, Diamond's was a place where you could get the best chocolates anywhere, in a dizzying array of shapes - or my favorite, the chunk chocolate, broken into thumb-sized pieces with sharp cleavage planes everywhere.

Diamond's used to be open all the time, or so it seemed; I never had a problem stopping in to pick up some chocolates for my friends any time of the year.  But about four years ago the store began closing temporarily at some times of the year.  At first it was closed during the Summer.  Then it was only open for a few weeks before Christmas and Easter, and maybe Valentine's Day, too.  Then it wasn't open at all.

And then it closed.  Diamond's Candy Shoppe closed a year or so ago.  It had been mostly closed for some time, but when they sold off the chocolate-making equipment, the copper kettles and other such things, everyone knew it was over.  Diamond's was gone for good.

Except it wasn't.

Just before last Christmas I was driving by the store with  a friend who was in town for a visit.  On a whim I drove him past the chocolate store, and there was the proprietor, Mr. Panagakos - unfortunately, locking up and leaving.  I tried again early on Christmas Eve, and the old neon OPEN sign in the window was lit up.  At least, it was lit up when I pulled up and parked, but as I got out of the car I saw Mr. Panagakos locking up again.  Fortunately, this time he saw me, and he quickly reopened and waved me in.  I came in, pulled out all the money in my wallet, and asked him to give me however much chocolate that would buy.

A week or so ago a sign appeared in the window of the old candy store informing interested parties that Mr. Panagakos would be taking orders for Easter candy.  Even better: he is keeping the store open for a few hours each day - 9:00 to 2:00 - up until Easter.  He has a few of his old display cabinets back up, filled with chocolate bunnies and ducks and race cars and a wide variety of Easter Eggs. 

I stopped by today, pulled out a $50 bill I had been saving since Christmas, and used it to buy as much chocolate as I could.

Diamond's Candy Shoppe will be open, I think, for a few more days, or until Mr. Panagakos runs out of candy.  I don't know when - or if - he will be opening again.  If you want to grab a taste of this legendary chocolate, the time is now.  Call ahead to the number shown above if you want to place a special order.  This may be your last chance!

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I've been giving blood since, I think, sometime in 1991 or 1992.  I got into the blood donation habit for all the wrong reasons.  I had read a book by Charles Panati - either Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things or Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias, or maybe even the since-retitled Panati's Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody - that discussed the ancient and enduring fad of bloodletting, by which practitioners attempted to improve health by drawing off sometimes copious amounts of blood. This was based on the general observation that women, who lose blood regularly by natural means, live longer than men.  (Oddly, battlefield observations of the health effects of losing large amounts of blood apparently did not come into consideration.) Somewhere along the way I believe Panati pointed out that there were, in fact, health benefits to be realized from tapping off some blood, but that these could best be attained through the modern practice of blood donation.  So I decided to give it a shot.

My first donation wasn't a pleasant experience.  The blood drive I went to was at the armory downtown.  Donors lay on flat, uncomfortable, unstable-feeling gurneys while the blood was being taken from them.  Still, the donation went well, and soon I became a regular at the Red Cross donor center just over a mile from my house.  As of the end of last year, I had donated 97 units.

(My most memorable donations have been ones that didn't happen.  Once I was extemely stressed while donating, and something went wrong:  either the needle popped out inside my arm, or it actually passed through my vein.  In any case, the bag didn't fill, and I was left with a tattoo of blood on the underside of my forearm.  I gave blood once at work in 2005 or so, and once again experienced the flat uncomfortable gurney instead of the Star Trek: The Next Generation-style couches used at the donation center.  I decided to give blood again at work during another drive in late February or early March 2007, a drive which was mysteriously cancelled just before it was scheduled to take place.  It wasn't long before I found out why that drive had been cancelled.)

Near the end of last year I was contacted by the Red Cross about doing a platelet donation via apheresis.  I have seen the apheresis systems in action and have often wondered about them, but was never curious enough to investigate further.  Unfortunately, at the time I was contacted - mid-to-late November, I think - I was pretty sick with something, something that wasn't bad enough to keep me from work (mostly) but that was bad enough to keep me from Thanksgiving dinner with my family. So they contacted me again - this time in early February, when I was dealing with The Thing That's Going Around, a nasty weeks-long cold/flu/pneumonia/whatever which I believe I picked up at a zoning hearing in late January for a solar sales and distribution place that someone I know was looking to build on some land about a mile from my house.  (The immediate neighbors of this land, which formerly was home to a collection of culm banks, rose up in unified rage against the notion of a business of some sort coming to Nanticoke and ruining perfectly good mine-scarred wastelands.)

The Red Cross called again a few weeks ago.  I was completely recovered by then, and had no real reason to turn them down.  So I said yes.

I was a little uneasy about the prospect of doing this.  I hate needles, first of all.  And while I don't mind having my blood drawn off, I do have an issue with having part of it re-injected into my system.  The idea of being essentially immobile for two hours or more during the procedure didn't appeal to me, either.  But I steeled myself to the notion, and eventually the biggest concern was what DVD I should take with me.  At the last moment I decided on the J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot of Star Trek.*

Turns out my body had some issues with the apheresis process.  A "valve" in the vein in my right arm made me a poor candidate for the two-needle procedure. But there is a way of doing apheresis with a single needle, which alternates between drawing off blood and returning the separated blood components. I don't know if this procedure takes longer, but I expect that it does.  I strolled into the Red Cross building just before my scheduled 12:30 appointment, and dashed out close to 3:30 to change cars and pick up my aunt and my mother for 4:00 Mass.  The process was a bit of a chore.  I had an inflatable squeeze-ball thingy that I had to keep pumping during the "drawing off" cycle, but during the "return" cycle I had to not pump it (which was helped a bit by the fact that it deflated fully during the return cycle.)  Pump, don't pump, pump, don't pump.

The apheresis process itself took a little over two hours.  The rest of the time was waiting, and checking-in, and getting set up. Star Trek is 126 minutes long; unfortunately, I sat through about ten minutes of trailers at the beginning of the DVD first, and then discovered that the movie was not set up  to auto-play, so I needed to call someone to hit "Enter" on the remote for me to make it play.  After all that, I still had a good ten minutes of the movie left to go when my procedure was over.  The Red Cross staff were perfectly willing to let me stay through to the end of the movie, but as mentioned above, I had somewhere else to be.

This was a single unit collection of platelets, because my precise hematocrit levels at this time are unknown. Based on the results of this donation, I may be eligible to donate two or even three units of platelets next time.

I left the center feeling odd.  Euphoric, energized, amped-up.  Maybe this was a side-effect of the donation, or a side-effect of the movie, or a little of both.  I also found myself a much better driver immediately after the donation; my 1996 Tercel felt like a brand-new car, and my mother's much larger car handled just as well.  The feeling hasn't entirely dissipated yet, but I fear in time the general gloom which has hung over me for the past few months will return.  Maybe it will go away again after my next bloodletting.

*And, oh, my, did I have issues with this movie. (SPOILERS AHEAD!)  Three minutes from Earth to Vulcan, but who-knows-how-long to the Laurentian System?  Delta Vega is close enough to Vulcan that the planet looms larger in its sky than the Earth in the lunar sky?  A supernova that threatens to destroy the galaxy?  Nero has a mining vessel - even a refitted, amped-up mining vessel - that is capable of cutting seven Constitution-class ships to pieces without suffering a scratch?  And coincidences, coincidences, coincidences?  Thing is: all these problems could probably be resolved by overdubbing some dialogue.  The supernova can become a "strange matter supernova," sending out a shock wave lethal to all normal matter, which can only be countered through the use of "red matter" - or so the Vulcans believed; but the use of "red matter," delivered by Ambassador Spock, actually amplifies the explosion, causing the destruction of Romulus.  "Delta Vega" becomes the next planet out from Vulcan, and Spock is forced to watch - well, you know - which he is able to see through a fiendish projector set up by Nero.  Oh, and Nero's vengeance-ship has been retrofitted with time travel gizmos which create "lightning in space" when they run; he initially travelled back in time twenty-five years too far, and had to jump forward to intercept Ambassador Spock's time-travelling spin-dizzy, which, say, Spock was using to warn the Vulcans not to use the red matter in the first place, though he was thrown back in time  much farther than he had intended by the effects of the "strange matter" explosion on "normal" spacetime.  (Through his interference, Nero becomes responsible for the destruction of his own homeworld.)  Or is it easier to accept that he and his crew brought along enough food and fuel to last twenty-five years?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Framing Faith: Documenting closed churches

Last week my friend Jen alerted me to a new book, "Framing Faith: A Pictorial History of Communities of Faith," documenting ten churches that have closed in the Diocese of Scranton.  From their website:

Framing Faith tells the story of the faith of immigrants and their descendants, spotlighting ten Catholic churches in the Diocese of Scranton that were closed due to restructuring. The churches, SACRED HEART, MAYFIELD; ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA, SCRANTON; ST. JOSEPH, SCRANTON; HOLY FAMILY, SCRANTON; ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST, SCRANTON; ST. MARY OF THE ASSUMPTION, SCRANTON; ST. MARY CZESTOCHOWA, SCRANTON; ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST, TAYLOR; IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, TAYLOR; AND ST. MICHAEL, OLD FORGE have rich ethnic heritages. They are Polish, Slovak, Italian, German, and Lithuanian parishes with long traditions and deep roots. Each church was founded by immigrant groups who came to the coal fields of the Lackawanna Valley with little more than their faith in God. Their churches served as the center of the community and touchstones of the Old Country. Framing Faith traces their histories from small beginnings through baptisms, weddings and funerals to their final celebrations. Throughout the text are images from each church, visual reminders of what was for many an important part of their lives.
This is a project by a young professional local historian and an experienced professional photographer. If the samples presented on the website are representative of the work as a whole, it is a beautiful and fascinating piece of local historical documentation.

As the not-so-old world is swept away by the economic and demographic changes that are affecting not just Northeastern Pennsylvania but the entire country and much of the world, it is good to know that people are making an effort to capture some memento of what is being lost.  I have made a similar effort with my home parish through my Stained Glass Project, and in a more general sense with Nanticoke and places throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania.  I hope that this book will prove to be just one in a host of projects to capture and preserve the world that is passing away before us.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Nanticoke: The Card Shoppe

Last week, as I took my mom on her weekly trip to the supermarket, we stopped at the card section.  A cousin's son was turning sixteen, and we wanted to get birthday cards.  Despite having a fairly extensive selection of cards at the supermarket, we were provided with exactly two options specific to a sixteen-year-old boy.  This seemed fine, until I pointed out that lots of other relatives and friends would probably be looking for cards there too, and he might end up with numerous copies of the same two cards.

At another birthday party the next day, I talked with my cousin's husband about this, and he agreed that even at large stores, the selection of cards is limited to either the same two or three major lines, or a random assortment of cards with inside text that appears to have been written by lobotomized non-English speakers trying to crank out cleverness using Babelfish. "It's too bad Al Bohinski isn't still around," I said, and he agreed.  "Yeah, then you'd have fifty or sixty years worth of cards to choose from."

Al Bohinski seemed like an old man the first time I met him.  He was from my grandmother's generation, maybe half a generation earlier, and always and forever he had been the owner and proprietor of The Card Shoppe.  It was a dark and odd place, with the floorboards blackened by years of heavy use.  Mr. Bohinski would sit behind the counter near the front and greet you as you came in, WNAK playing from a small radio next to him.  You could tell him exactly what you were looking for, and he would rise up wheezily from his stool and walk along the creaking floor on bandy legs, his pants held up with black suspenders, and tell you precisely where the selection of cards you were looking for would be.  And what a selection:  cards reaching back at least into the 1960's, maybe earlier.  And not just cards, but little statuettes and other knicknacks.  Prayer books, bibles, crucifixes, stickers of the sort teachers would use at school. I picked up a golden-eyed white porcelain Triceratops there, ostensibly for my mother or grandmother, and later got the matching Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus.

(What, you thought I was making this up?)
Mr. Bohinski would always discount whatever he was selling you.  If a card was marked 35 cents, he would charge you 30.  It didn't matter to him that a similar card elsewhere would cost five times as much.

I could never leave the store without Mr. Bohinski telling me some story.  How, back before they were even courting, my grandfather would point to my grandmother as she passed by and tell his friends "That's the girl I'm going to marry!"  How in-store design-a-card kiosks were killing the card business. (Such things turned out to be a passing fad, themselves done in by design-at-home programs.) He delightedly showed me a self-tying bow manufactured by a ribbon factory in Berwick. Those moments were priceless.

He died a year or so before my grandmother.  He had been dying for some time, and had had to give up working at The Card Shoppe a few years earlier.  I remember walking in there one weekend to see someone else sitting at the counter, someone unfamiliar with the layout of the cards.  And instead of WNAK playing on the radio, one of the local college radio stations was tuned in.  Letters to Cleo's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" was playing.  It was...odd.  Disconcerting.

Eventually the store changed hands, but it's still open.  It's now known as Maria-Anna's Card and Gift Shoppe.  Mari-Anna has kept much of the store the way it was, though it seems a bit brighter, and the floorboards may be a bit less grimy.  I stopped in today to pick up a confirmation card for a friend's son.  She led me right to them, to a selection of cards that looked to be at least forty years old.  I selected one with a stained-glass image on the front, which I thought would be a nicely personal touch.  It didn't have a price marked that I could see, but she charged only 85 cents for it.  It would have cost three or four times that much anywhere else.

After I gave her my dollar and got a shiny nickel and dime back in change I looked at the stuff around the counter and under the glass display case.  Like the rest of the store, it was filled with artifacts of bygone eras - artifacts that might command high prices from interested buyers.  Could my eighty-five cents have been all that she made for the day?  How many eighty-five cent cards does she have to sell each day just to keep the place open?

I don't know how much longer a store such as this can continue to exist, even a store nestled in a pocket of unreality like Nanticoke.  If you're interested in buying cards from decades past, or strange statues and trinkets from a time long gone, stop in and visit the place.  It's located at 129 South Market Street in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.