Saturday, March 31, 2018

The blessing of the baskets

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Today is Holy Saturday, the day for the Blessing of the Baskets. This is an annual tradition that is apparently common in Polish churches but not universal to the Catholic Church, since a friend of German extraction from about forty miles away had never heard of it. Every year, families will gather together a sampling of the foods to be eaten on Easter Sunday - including, but not limited to, hard-boiled eggs, kielbasa (Polish sausage, fresh or smoked, though for the basket, usually smoked), ham, bread, salt, butter (sometimes in the shape of a lamb), horseradish, cakes, and chocolate candy. These baskets will be taken to the parish church or parish center and the priest will pronounce a blessing over them. The book of blessings specifically calls out many of the different items that traditionally are included in the basket.

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The past few years I have taken our basket to the house of one of the church deacons, a family friend who lives in the neighborhood. There, along with other friends and relatives, we get our basket blessed in a short form of the ritual.

The blessing was scheduled for noon today. My mom wanted me to go out before then to Sanitary Bakery to pick up two lamb cakes and two loaves of walnut bread. I had hoped to get out to the bakery bright and early, maybe a little after 9:00 this morning, but things kept popping up. As it was, I didn't get out of the house until 11:00, taking the basket to be blessed with me, just in case there was a line.

There was a line.

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The routine was: you would pull up at the bakery and see the crowd, and wonder what everyone was doing there. Then, as you got out of your car, you realized that people were waiting in line. You would go to join the line and notice that everyone else was holding a number. So then you would go into the bakery, see how crowded it was inside, and wonder if the wait would we worth it. Then you took your place in the back of the line and began to make small talk with friends, neighbors, and total strangers.

The line was never fewer than twelve people long outside, with another six or so inside. I eventually found my way inside the place. I added a loaf of rye bread to my order, and had to dig deep for extra money. I got out of the bakery, carefully loaded the car - lamb cakes easily lose their heads - and grabbed my camera to take some photos. I pulled away from the bakery at ten minutes of noon, and got out of the car at the deacon's house just in time.

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Sanitary Bakery - which lies, fun fact, directly on the 76 degrees West line of longitude - shares a parking lot with Saint Francis Joseph's church, now closed and falling into disrepair. (Saint Francis was demolished years ago.)
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The Lincoln School, directly across the street from the deacon's house. Note the swollen buds on the tree, getting ready to unfurl their leaves.

Today was an absolutely gorgeous day, crisp and cold, warm in the sunlight, the cloudless sky varying intensities of azure. It was one of those days you just want to bottle and preserve forever.

Maybe, with this blog post, in some small way I have.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The empty tomb

When my mom was a little girl, her family had a tradition: every Good Friday in the afternoon, they would go out and walk from church to church throughout Nanticoke. It wasn't to see how they were decorated for Easter. After the conclusion of Good Friday services the altar is stripped, a crucifix is placed out for veneration, and a statue of the body of Christ laid in the tomb is put on display. Each church has an air of devastation, in keeping with the nature of the holy day.

One by one the Roman Catholic churches of Nanticoke have been closing. St. Joseph's is shuttered, its windows cut out and sold, the remaining building falling into disrepair. St. Francis was torn down. Holy Child has been repurposed. St. Stanislaus is now a cultural center. Holy Trinity is now the main site for the consolidated St. Faustina parish, while St. Mary's has been kept as a "secondary site" - though now that a shortage of priests has reduced activity there to a single Mass each week, it seems likely that the church I grew up in, and my mother and grandmother grew up in, will soon be closed.

Every trip there could be the last. Every holiday could be the last.

Today is Good Friday. My mom only wanted to visit the "secondary site" today. Her old church.

We got there a little before 7:00 tonight. I was able to park right out front. Upon entering the church we realized this was because no one else was there, except for a single person praying in the back.

We went through the rituals, the veneration of the cross and so forth. Then I went to see the thing I had brought my camera for: the statue of the body in the tomb.

I was disappointed.

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Oh, it's a nice statue, don't get me wrong. About 2/3 life size. It's just that it's not the one that I remember from my days as an altar boy, and isn't capable of the thing that made that statue so memorable.

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This is a single integrated piece of statuary. The body, the cloth, and the tomb are all a single statue. Most importantly, the body cannot be removed from the tomb.

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The statue I remember from back when I was in grade school was larger, about life-sized. It was a statue of the body only. The tomb and the cloth on which the body made were separate, and the cloth was actual cloth.

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The body would lay there. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, the statue representing the dead body of the crucified Christ would lay in the tomb. And then, come Easter Sunday morning, it would be gone.

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Not the whole display, mind you. Just the body. The empty tomb would remain on display for Easter Sunday. I found this to be a striking image neatly reflecting Gospel stories of the discovery of the empty tomb.

With a single, unified statue, this isn't possible. The statue is either there, or it isn't. And come Easter Sunday, I expect that this statue will simply be gone.

How long until the rest of the church formerly know as St. Mary's will follow suit?

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Chocolate-covered Easter Eggs 2018

So it turns out that the picture of chocolate-covered Easter Eggs that I posted the other day is some ten years old - which may be the last time I made them. I just finished another batch tonight. Here are photos of them, packed and ready for transportation on Sunday. Yellow are peanut butter, orange are maple walnut, and blue are coconut cream.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Benny got a raw deal

Once upon a time we bloggers had the concept of the Blogosphere: a global network of bloggers linking to other bloggers, commenting on each other's posts and responding to those comments, forming friendships and the occasional deep enmity - a social network, if you will, long before Facebook rose to prominence and came to embody the concept of "social network."

Here's a post from December 2015, which I found through a comment by the blogger to a clever tweet about RENT being unrealistic because it presented the possibility that two people could fall in love with a performance artist. This post focuses on the character of Benny, the successful capitalist friend and sometime foe of the main characters, who owns the building in which they are squatting and who had a goal of turning the building into an art studio with condos, providing gainful employment for them and an income stream for himself. Benny is treated as a villain, especially in the movie version, which excises all the human touches (such as paying for one character's funeral) that gave depth and complexity to his character.

I believe I saw RENT performed in Scranton back in 2010, and I immediately took a liking to Benny, while finding myself looking askance at the other characters who... well, anyway, just read the linked blog post by Courtney Enlow.

PAJBA: In defense of Benny from 'Rent'

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Don't let the bastards grind you down

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school are in for a rough time. When they were attacked February 14, 2018 by a former student with a long history of behavioral problems and an AR-15, they could have just quietly buried their dead, gone back to school, and quietly carried on, accepting that the occasional mass shooting is the price you pay for living in One Nation Under he Gun. After all, isn't that what the rest of us did after Columbine, after Aurora, after Sandy Hook, after Pulse, after Las Vegas? Weren't we willing to grumble "somebody oughta do something," and then just shake our heads as our elected officials went right on doing nothing?

But they weren't willing to do that. They got mad. They got involved. They spoke out. They raised funds. They organized. They took elected officials to task. And this past weekend, on March 24, 2018, they held the March For Our Lives. They gathered in Washington, D.C. and at other sites across the U.S. and across the globe. They kept speaking out. They kept calling for action. This time, their words were carried live, across the country and around the world.

(When you were their age, didn't you think you could change the world? Did you ever get around to doing it?)

Along the way they've made powerful enemies. Their foremost - but by no means the only - enemy is the National Rifle Association, an organization once dedicated to gun education and gun safety, Now they seem to all about the money, and dedicated to blocking any common-sense legislation that might in any was regulate gun sales.

And so they have come under attack, from the NRA and their cronies on the "right." Conservative news outlets and social media have waged relentless attacks on the individuals leading the movement. Smear campaigns, personal attacks, doctored images - and this is just the beginning.

Long term, the goal will be to make every one of the movement leaders regret that they had ever stood up and spoken out, to make them want more than anything to go back to being the people they were the morning of February 14, 2018, to forget about the shooting and the movement, to distance themselves from it, to deny any connections to it - forever. To be silent, to keep their mouths shut and their heads down and let the status quo prevail. To accept the reality of life in One Nation Under the Gun.

Will this happen?

Only if the rest of us let it happen. They have shown such strength and courage. Now it's up to us, those of us who give a damn, to support and defend them as relentlessly (and more so) as those who are attacking them. To let them know that they are not alone. To let that their movement has not been in vain.

Visit them on Twitter to show your support:


Monday, March 26, 2018

Untold tales: NEPA BlogCon 2016 afterparty

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October 15, 2016. We had just ended the very successful NEPA BlogCon 2016, and made the hike from Scranton to Pittston for the afterparty at the Susquehanna Brewing Company. Fun fact: most of the time, I really suck at parties and social occasions. I usually find myself tracking down the resident dog and having a lengthy conversation. Unfortunately, there were no dogs at the Susquehanna Brewing Company, just people with whom I should have been able to make easy conversation. Eventually it occurred to me to go out to my car, get my camera, strap it on, and start taking pictures.

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Over the afterparty: Creative skywriting, or a bizarre meteorological phenomenon?

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I wandered over to the brew vats behind the band in the back room where our party was set up. These fascinated me: great hulking industrial things like the vats of nickel sulfamate I had worked around during my time as a CD Plater. But instead of huge plastic tanks filled with a bright teal liquid, these were gleaming stainless steel tanks filled with beer.

I lined up some photos and thought about Margaret Bourke-White, who turned industrial photography into high art.

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I wandered around a bit more, grabbed some pizza and cake, and showed my photos to Karla Porter, one of the organizers of the NEPA BlogCon. Her mother happened to be with  her, and when I told her what I had been doing, she said "You know, if I were taking these photographs I might do them all in black and white."

I stepped back, stunned by the absolute rightness of her observation.

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Several other brewpubs have opened in the area. I hope to maybe someday photograph their setups - if they're anywhere near as photogenic as the ones at the Susquehanna Brewing Company.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Snow on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018

I woke up this morning to find ice in the water dish we leave out for the "outside" cats, the stable clowder currently consisting of Little Girl (who is now eight years old), Mr. Black, and Mr. Orange. (It also serves various raccoons, skunks, opossums, and other woodland critters who like to visit.) The air didn't feel very cold, but the thermometer showed that it was 25 degrees. I looked at the car windshield and saw that it was clear of frost or ice, probably because the cold of the last week or so has sucked all the moisture out of the air, so there was nothing to deposit onto the windshield.

A few hours later I stepped out to head to church. The back porch was sprinkled with water. Had the cats spilled the water dish? Or...I looked up and saw that the landscape was covered in snow, snow that was still coming down in picturesque downy flakes.

When I got to church it was still snowing, thought the snowflakes seemed to have gotten smaller. The snow had piled up enough that an usher had to clear it off the steps.

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Snow falling on church, March 25, 2018
By the time Palm Sunday services ended, so had the snow. The sun had come out. The snow that coated the roads, sidewalks, and steps was gone, and the rest was rapidly melting - except in the shadows. Snow-covered cars parked in shade were still snow-covered.

We found an example of this when we got home. My broken and soon-to-be-scrapped 1996 Toyota Tercel with over 400,000 miles was still snow-covered; it is parked in our driveway, and is shaded by the house. Snow not in the shadow of the house did not last long in the full light of the midday sun. A few hours later, all of the new snow was gone.

Perhaps I was premature in wondering if Winter had had its last gasp. This is actually too early to be called "onion snow" (which I just found out is a regionalism, and a Pennsylvania Dutch one at that.) How much more snow can we look forward to?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Some thoughts while watching the March For Our Lives

If you, like me, had lost hope for the future of our nation in the era of Trump and his cronies, I hope you also found that hope again by watching the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and others affected by gun violence take a stand in today's March For Our Lives .

(to be continued)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Chocolate-covered Easter Eggs

(I've posted this recipe before a few times, but always in conjunction with something else. Here it is, by itself, with tips and tricks.)

Chocolate-covered Easter Eggs

1 1/2 sticks butter
8 oz. package cream cheese
Add at least 2 boxes of powdered sugar a little at a time
(you'll need a third box to add powdered sugar to thicken the batter after you've added the flavorings)

Mix all ingredients together well.

Divide and add as desired:
- coconut & vanilla
- peanut butter
- walnuts & maple flavoring
- well-drained (almost dry) chopped cherries & almond flavoring
NOTE: If eggs are too sweet, add a pinch of salt.

Chocolate coating:
Melt large package chocolate chips & 1/2 cake of wax in double boiler.

Shape cream cheese mixture into eggs and dip in melted chocolate. Place on waxed paper to set.
NOTE: Do not allow eggs to touch while chocolate is setting or some of the coating will peel away. Save leftover chocolate for patching holes.

Decorate with icing leaves and color-coded icing flowers.

Tips for Chocolate-Covered Easter Eggs:
1. Refrigerate the rolled eggs before dipping. Do not remove from refrigerator until immediately before dipping.
2. When rolling "soft" egg batter, like the cherry ones, dust your hands with powdered sugar and work quickly so the heat of your body does not soften the batter so it can't be shaped.
3. Melt the chocolate at LOW temperature in a double boiler. You can even shut the heat off while you are dipping - the water will retain the heat for a while and keep the chocolate melted. If the chocolate is too hot, the eggs will begin to dissolve while dipping them.
4. Use a cream cheese icing as the flower color code, not buttercream. The overly sweet nature of buttercream clashes with the slightly sour cream cheese-based egg filling.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Untold tales: Nanticoke Bonfire 2017

I've really slacked off on my bloggerish duties in the past few years. In part that's the fault of having a much simpler, though far more ephemeral, "microblogging" platform in Facebook. As a result I've posted many items of interest that could have been - and, in pre-Facebook day, would have been - blog entries.

One fond memory of my childhood was the annual bonfire. It was held every Fall to correspond to the "homecoming" game, and attracted hundreds of residents of Nanticoke to an area just off the Little League field. The bonfire was a community ritual, people gathering together to watch something burn. It was primal,and savage, and fun.

I stopped going to bonfires after High School, and in the intervening years I have always managed to miss the bonfire for one reason or another. This past year I found that my schedule would allow me to watch the bonfire. The trick was to find out exactly when it was. There was no public announcement that I could see, and the various relevant websites were all vague and noncommittal. Finally I found a post about the Homecoming dance that mentioned the bonfire as a by-the-way. From that I was able to piece together a date - that day, September 21 - and a time - about an hour from when I was reading the notice. I got myself together, got my camera, and walked the few blocks to the site of the bonfire.

I was almost too late.

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The bonfire was already burning as I approached, and a good crowd had gathered, with more showing up by the minute.

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I seem to remember bonfires in October, with the cold Autumn air being warmed by the fire. But this was a warm night, technically the next-to-last day of Summer.

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As the fire grew larger and the afternoon darkened into evening, the pagan ritual aspect of the bonfire became more prominent.
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Firefighters watch the bonfire blaze.
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Getting in close to the fire allowed me to play with some settings.

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As the fire died down, the crowd dispersed.

I may make it a point to attend the 2018 bonfire.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Winter's last gasp?

Today, on the second day of Spring, we had the fourth Nor'easter of the season.

Frankly, I don't remember ever having more than one or two Nor'easters in a season, but someone who grew up on the coast in New England assured me that Nor'easters can come in clusters just like hurricanes. Then again, I don't ever recall hurricanes following one after another in such relentless succession as they did in 2017. Maybe this is the new normal.

I say "we," but Nanticoke has been spared much of the worst of these storms. Some parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania got socked pretty hard, even today, but for us the storm amounted to a sustained snow squall that dropped a few inches of loose, wet snow - ideal for making snowballs - that melted quickly on roads and sidewalks and was already mostly melted by the time I took the garbage out tonight.


I have some tomato seedlings started. I started some tomatoes from seed two years ago and had an impressive harvest. Last year I didn't do anything, didn't even buy started plants to put in my garden. I decided to patronize local farm stands to get ripe red tomatoes and green tomatoes for frying. As I shelled out $1 apiece for the tomatoes, I realized I had made a terrible and expensive mistake.

I put seeds in peat pellets last Saturday. I had to start them on top of the refrigerator, far from the East-facing window I would have preferred, and by midweek I had a bunch of leggy seedlings reaching for the light. I repotted them, burying them as deep as I could, and put them in a more favorable location. If they don't work out, I still have time to start a few more seeds. I hope Winter leaves us soon so I can start hardening off the seedlings in another four weeks or so.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The last male Northern White Rhinoceros has died

It's been a nearly a third of a century since Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine set out on a mission to document some of the most endangered animals on Earth, a project Adams wrote about in his book Last Chance to See. Some of the animals described have maintained their numbers, or even made a slight recovery. Others, like the Baiji dolphin, have slipped away into oblivion.

The Northern White Rhinoceros, so precariously close to extinction in 1985, showed some small increase in numbers in the decade that followed. But political unrest and relentless poaching quickly reversed any gains, and numbers were reduced to the point that the Northern White Rhinoceros was declared extinct in the wild in 2008. A last-ditch effort to save the species was declared: all individuals being held safely in zoos throughout the world were recalled to their ancestral homeland, the idea being that they would be more likely to reproduce in their natural habitat. This turned out to be an enormously bad idea, as many of the repatriated rhinos were quickly picked off by poachers. The few survivors were placed under around-the-clock guard.

As of yesterday, the global population consisted on one elderly male, one sterile female, and one female incapable of bearing young. As of today, Sudan, the last living male Northern White Rhinoceros, is dead.

This is not something that just happened. We were warned. We knew what would happen. We could have taken steps to avoid this outcome. There was nothing inevitable about it, until there was.

As of yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, the Northern White Rhinoceros was effectively extinct in captivity. The three remaining individuals did not constitute a viable population by any stretch. Losing one of them does not change that reality. They were not representatives of the hope for the survival of a dying species. They were living reminders of our guilt and failure.

Now there is one less reminder.

Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhinoceros.
From the Ol Pejeta Conservancy Twitter page (

Monday, March 19, 2018

You are my friend, you are special - Part 2

A friend once argued to me that if you treat everybody as special, then nobody is special.

I disagreed. Maybe that came from being raised, in part, on a diet of Mister Rogers. He taught inclusion and acceptance - "I like you just for being you." His signature song - one of them, anyway - had a beautiful message, and a beautiful structure:

You are my friend, you are special
you are my friend
you're special to me

There is nobody else like you
like you, my friend
I like you.


Like so many things from this show, this song stuck with me.

When my cat Scooter was dying two years ago, I found myself doing anything I could to soothe him, comfort him, keep him relaxed and calm. I would tell him stores, sing him songs, anything I could think of. One was a slightly modified version of the Mister Rogers song: "You are my cat, you are special, you are my cat..." I sang it to him in the last minutes of his life.

We have another cat dying now. Joey, our oldest. He has been with us nearly eighteen years, and he has been fading slowly for the last year or so. We didn't think he would make it to Christmas, so this is bonus time. But he is still able to eat, drink, poop, pee, and decide where he wants to be. We think he is blind, or mostly blind; his eyes have been widely dilated for months, with no response to light, but if he is blind he navigates the house pretty well. I have been sleeping near him for the last few weeks, so I can respond quickly if he begins to cry if he is hungry or lost or in distress. Lately I have found that the easiest way to stop his crying is to scoop him up and put him next to me. He will immediately stop crying and begin purring, and after a few minutes he will get up and walk away.

Last night, thinking of this post, I began to sing "You Are My Cat" to Joey as he lay beside me. I noticed Romeo and Peaches looking on somewhat jealously. I quickly pluralized the song to "You Are My Cats," and they seemed satisfied.


For five weeks in the summer of 1984, I lived in Mister Rogers' neighborhood.

I was selected to represent my Intermediate Unit at the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences. Eighty of us went out to Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh to get intensive training in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science. It was a grueling, exhausting program, but an experience I will always treasure.

We had been told that Mister Rogers lived in a high-security apartment building not far from campus. People would sometimes see him driving past or through the campus in his two-toned Cadillac. On at least one occasion he had been swarmed by a crowd of over-enthusiastic fans.

One day - it was probably a Saturday, because we did not have classes that day, and I was probably heading to the library to do some research on my chosen lab topic of non-classical femtochemistry - I was walking across the campus. The path from Hamerschlag House, where we were staying, to the rest of the campus cut across several lightly-traveled streets. As I approached the crosswalk on one of these streets a car rolled up to the stop sign, a two-toned black-and-gray Cadillac. Remembering the stories, I looked up to see Fred Rogers at the wheel. My eyes got huge with surprise, and he turned to me with an equally surprised look. For a moment, our eyes locked.

And then he drove off. He had somewhere to go, and so did I. But I would always remember how I had sort-of met Mister Rogers, right in his own neighborhood.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

You are my friend, you are special - Part 1

I still send letters through the mail from time to time. Bills, mostly, though less often now than I used to, ever since an incident a few years ago when several important bills that had been mailed at the same time - including my mortgage payment - never got to where they were going. I have always loved stamps, though I've never been a dedicated stamp collector. I like to think of stamps as miniature pieces of artwork that might brighten the day of whoever happens to see them, or cause them to pause and think about the tiny image they had just glimpsed.

When the original design of the Purple Heart stamp came out in a 37 cent denomination in 2003, I decided to make that my "go-to" stamp. I had been spending a lot of time in the local VA hospital with my father, and I was watching the ongoing catastrophe of George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, generating more and more wounded soldiers. The Purple Heart stamp honored them, but more importantly, it acknowledged their existence. For me, each time I used the stamp, it was a way of calling attention to them, and pointing a shaming glance at the Bush/Cheney administration and their war. I continued with this stamp through the price increases in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The 2014 "Forever" version of the stamp saw a redesign that reduced the size of the Purple Heart image, and I began looking to other stamps. Eventually, I settled on flag stamps as my standard, just because they were the most readily available.

On March 23, 2018, the United States Postal Service will release a new "Forever" stamp honoring beloved children's television show host Fred Rogers, and I think I will have a new "go-to" stamp.

Image from

Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, was the creator and host of the long-running PBS program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. There has been much written about him that it would be redundant for me to write more. But I think I will stock up on this stamp. saving some, but using the rest for all my mail for as long as the supply lasts. And with each one I hope someone might see it and remember Mister Rogers' messages of caring, acceptance, friendship, and love. This world needs a big dose of Mister Rogers right now.

NEXT: Singing songs to dying cats, and the summer I spent living in Mister Rogers' neighborhood.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Ireland posts

Today is Saint Patrick's Day, and that has me thinking about my trips to Ireland. My last one actually wrapped up just after Saint Patrick's Day, and I got to experience the day right in small-town Ireland.

I checked my tag list and saw that I had fifty-seven posts tagged "Ireland." This one will make if fifty-eight. Some are in-depth, some (like this one) just mention it in passing. You can see everything with this tag by clicking here.

Here's a sampling of photos from my visits there:

Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys 'R' Us is closing

I never heard of Toys 'R' Us until I was nearly a teenager. That was probably around the time one was built in Wilkes-Barre in the early 1980s. It wasn't a place I went to back then, but some of my fiends in high school worked there.

I can't remember when I first went there. It's possible it wasn't until sometime in the mid-1990s, when I was shopping for a present for some friends' newborn. After that I went there a few times each year, usually looking for toys or stuffed animals as gifts. One year when I was flush with money and in a generous mood, I went there to stock up on Barbies and Barbie clothing and accessories for a little girl whose name I had pulled off our company charity Christmas tree. (That was a surreal experience in the pink Barbie aisle. "Well, here's a traditional Barbie, but...she's white, and blonde. What if this little girl isn't white? What if she looks more like this Barbie, or this Barbie...well, better get them all, just to be safe, And Barbie needs clothes - professional clothes, casual clothes, party clothes, and she needs shoes - SO MANY SHOES - and a case to keep everything in, and...oooh, here's a Barbie Veterinarian office, with a redheaded Skipper doll and a cat and dog..." That was a good Christmas for a little girl, I hope. And I hope she shared her toys with friends who didn't have Barbies, so they could all play together.)

Sometimes I would go there just for me. Wander around and look at the games, the models, the Todd McFarlane toys, the dinosaurs...usually I wouldn't buy anything. Sometimes it was just a chance to decompress on my way home from work.

In 2013 one of my friends was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. I wanted to get her a gift for her recovery, something unique, something that, when she looked at it, she would know had come from me. I thought of various things that fit her personality, reflected my personality, and would be situationally appropriate. After a lot of thought, I found myself wandering through Toys 'R' Us. Eventually I headed to the plush toys section. I looked at the stuffed animals. A bear? A monkey? An elephant? What would be the best gift?

Then I came across the stuffed dinosaurs.

There were a few options to choose from. I tested each for heft and cuddleability. Finally I selected a cute little triceratops. It was cuddly and friendly and strong and brave, and when my friend saw it in the pile of gifts given to her for her recovery, she might remember that it was from me and that I loved her and was pulling for her.

About a week later I was driving someone to a poetry reading. She was a fellow member of our writing group, someone I had met online years before, a full year before I met her in person in 2011. She was seeing someone by the time I met her in the writing group - the shock of recognition threw me for a bit, when I realized this was the person I had been exchanging messages with a year before. She had since dumped him and left the group, and I had been spending quite a bit of time trying to persuade her to come back - she was one of the best poets and writers I had ever met, and I wanted to get to hear her and see her again. By the Fall of 2013 she decided it was time to come back. There was more to it than this, and I was about to launch upon an odyssey with her that would have all the drama of a Mexican telenovella, but for now I was happy to be able to bring her back to the group and have her, for a little while, in the car with me.

As we drove to the poetry reading at The Vintage in Scranton we talked about - stuff. Her mom, who was showing the early signs of the aggressive cancer that would kill her in a few months. Her classes at a local two-year college. Tattoos, which neither of us had. Dinosaurs and dinosaur art - she volunteered that her favorite dinosaur was a triceratops. And that got me thinking.

The poetry reading was fun. It ended with a somewhat traumatic trip to the Waffle House at the urging of someone who seemed very eager to get to know her, accompanied by his girlfriend. (I managed to get a horror story of sorts out of the incident - "Performance Review," at the bottom of this post.) In the aftermath, we  made plans to go to an upcoming poetry reading, a special Halloween edition where many of the readers would dress up in costume.

I decided I would get her a gift for the Halloween reading - a stuffed triceratops like I had gotten my other friend. But I never actually went out to get it before the day of the reading. I had that day off, and I spent some of the first part of the day assisting with a plumbing project. Finally, with a few hours to spare, I got dressed, got my material together, and headed out to Toys 'R' Us to pick up the triceratops.

They didn't have any.

That's not exactly true. They had a much larger, much more expensive version, but that wasn't what I was looking for. Crapcrapcrap.

The clock was ticking. I plotted out a route to the Dickson City Toys 'R' Us, worked out the route from there to her house, and calculated that if I drove very quickly I would have about five minutes of shopping time.

I rushed in, wild-eyed. I've always hated shopping at other Toys 'R' Us stores. The layout is never the same, and, combined with the white-painted cinder block and glaring fluorescent light ambiance, the entire experience is just unsettling. I had no time to figure out where the stuffed animals were. I grabbed the first clerk I saw and told him what I was looking for.

He had no idea what a triceratops was.

With the seconds ticking by, I frantically described it to him. Together, we went to the plush dinosaur display, which was now devoid of triceratopses. He went into the back room and came out a few minutes later, triumphantly showing me the much larger, more expensive version - the only version they had. I thanked him, grabbed it, and raced for the checkouts. With seconds to spare, I ran out to the car, hid the triceratops under a blanket in the back seat, and got behind the steering wheel.

I glanced at the rear-view mirror and realized I had conducted my entire frantic shopping trip with devil horns glued to my forehead.

She lived in Scranton and the reading was in Wilkes-Barre. The reading went well, although it was not without the typical trauma and drama that surrounded so many of these events. After the reading I took her on a quick tour of Nanticoke, mainly so we could drive and talk. Eventually I turned north to head back to the house where she lived with her mom.

We kept talking after we got there. I pulled out a copy of Sunset and Shadow from amongst the pieces I had presented. It had been written with her in mind, during that time when she was absent from the writing group. I told her that, and read it to her.

She appreciated it. She responded with one of her favorite quotes, from the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Bieda: “I believed that I wanted to be a poet, but deep down I just wanted to be a poem.”

I thanked her for going to the reading with me, and letting me spend time with her. I reached into the back seat, pulled out the triceratops, and presented it to her. She hugged it tight. We made our goodnights, and I headed home.
Midnight, October 19, 2013
On a cold October night
under a full moon
a devil sat next to a porcelain doll
and told her lies that were the truth
and truths that were the truth
And when he was finished
he gave her a stuffed triceratops
and a hug
and they made plans to get together again soon

(She kept the triceratops for a while. It made it to the apartment she and her mom moved to two weeks later, and I think it made it out when she left the apartment after her mother died, and to her dorm room a few months later, once she transferred to a local university to continue her studies. She's married now. Does she still have that memento of that night? I have no idea.)

When I was looking for the triceratops, I kept coming across this ugly, goofy-looking dinosaur. The tag identified it as an oviraptor.

Wild Republic 7" Stuffed Oviraptor. Image from Amazon. I got mine for $7.99, I think. As of this writing, you can buy one from a third-party seller on Amazon for $44.97, with free shipping.

I decided I wanted one as a souvenir of the weekend. I stopped at the Wilkes-Barre Toys 'R' Us and found that they had mostly pulled the plush dinosaurs from the shelves. I managed to find one oviraptor. I took it.

I keep my stuffed oviraptor at my desk at work. I call it my "therapy dinosaur," and hug it during particularly stressful calls. I looked at it today at felt a twinge of sadness that the store where I bought it will soon be closed forever.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The storm, one year later

A year ago we had one hell of a snowstorm. All I managed to post during it was a picture and a little text.

21 inches of snow on the front porch by noon on March 14, 2017. Snow was still coming down. Three hours later, when it seemed to have stopped, I measured it again at 22 inches.
We've had bad snowstorms before. The blizzard of 1993. The Valentine's Day 2007 storm, which dumped "lasagna" snow - alternating layers of dry snow, sleet, and wet snow. The March 2017 storm was bad, but manageable. Still very bad. This storm was mostly light, shovelable stuff, but an awful lot of it, with drifts of over three feet.I watched as the outside world was transformed into a "marshmallow world," with a soft, thick, flowing layer of snow covering every surface.

I worried about the feral cats outside. I hoped they had retreated to places of safety, but had not become trapped or buried alive. They did not show up on the porch at all that day to eat the food I had put out. That night, I resolved to fight my way out to the bird feeder, fill it with seed, and put out some suet cakes. With effort, I forced open the back porch door and faced down the smooth slope that had once been a flight of steps. I grasped the wrought iron railings, searched in the snow with my boot for the surface of the stone steps, and slowly made my way down to what I eventually decided was the ground level.

Drifting snow buried the back yard waist-high. I waded though the snow blindly, operating on a remembered map of the yard: here is a recycling container, here is a lawn chair, this is a rhododendron,  that lump is the bird feeder... The snow came up to the bottom of the bird feeder. I knocked it clean of snow, refilled it, and set the empty seed container down on the waist-high snow. I then hung the suet cake cage I had bought decades ago from the shepherd's crook that the bird feeder hung from.

Satisfied I had given the birds a fighting chance, I looked around the back yard. I could not have positively identified it as my house. Gentle, fluffy mounds occupied the places where familiar objects had been. Were the cats buried under those mounds?

I plowed my way back toward the steps, carrying the now-empty bird seed container. The snow-covered slope of the steps was much harder to navigate going up than it had been to come down. Eventually I hauled myself back onto the porch, set down the bird seed container, and looked sadly at the untouched water and food bowls.

I shook the snow off my clothes and opened the back door. Looking back one last time, I saw that Little Girl, a feral cat who has been with us since 2010, had followed me up the steps and was drinking from the water bowl.


My mom had an appointment the next day. I was either scheduled off or had taken the day off, I don't remember which. It was an important appointment, hard to get,not easy to reschedule. It turned out that the doctor's office was opened and seeing patients. Her appointment was not until the afternoon, so I had some time to clear the sidewalks and dig out the car - all by hand.

Shoveling the snow took strategy. Shave off the top twelve inches, toss aside. Shave off the next twelve and toss somewhere else. Dig down to the sidewalk layer and clear. Take one step forward. Repeat.

I wasn't doing it alone. My brother and nephews stopped by to clear out the car and help with the sidewalks. We also shoveled the side street and dug out the fire hydrant. It was a lot of work, but we got the job done.

Shortly after we finished, I escorted my mom down to the car. She needs a cane to help her walk, especially when the sidewalks are covered with snow. As we made our way to the car, we looked at the walls of snow piled on either side of the sidewalk. The one on the tree lawn was pretty impressive. It was braced by the snow piled up on the side of the road, pushed there by snow plows. But the sidewalk was clear, and my mom could walk to the car and get to her appointment.

When we came back from the appointment, the sidewalk was buried.

This is what my mom had to walk over. It was worse before I dug at it. It was much better before it was buried.

So the plan was, I would drop my mom off at the bottom of the sidewalk, and she would begin to make her way up as I parked the car. That would have been at a spot next to the utility pole in this picture. The sidewalk had been shoveled clean before we left. But while we were at her appointment, a snowplow had helpfully come by and scraped the snow off the street, all the way to the curb - so close that it actually broke a chunk off the curb near the handicapped access ramp that the city installed on the corners of every block a few weeks ago. The snowplow pushed all the snow that had been piled on the tree lawn onto the sidewalk, re-burying it and making it nearly impossible for my mom to get back into her own house. (Incidentally, they also buried the fire hydrant under several feet of snow.)

I picked up some of the bigger blocks of snow and hurled them into the street like an enraged caveman. I remembered the shovel I had put in the car to deal with any emergencies. I took it out and began to shovel. I cleared enough of a path for my mother to get back into the house. I then continued to re-shovel the sidewalks I had just shoveled, getting angrier and angrier with each passing second. Finally my anger got the better of me. I carried the shovel into the house with me, grabbed a phone, and called the city. 

Note the collapsed snow and the path I had cleared for my mother. The snow at the bottom of the sidewalk was so densely packed that I dug an alternate path across the lawn and around the utility pole.

I gave them an earful. Told them about what my elderly mother had just had to deal with. Told them about the buried fire hydrant. Told them that whatever contractor had been hired to plow the roads had better get their ass out here to undo the mess they'd made.

And they did.

I can be very persuasive when I'm angry.


The snow melted, eventually. Sometimes I still can't believe that it did, but it did. I think it took about two weeks. When the snow was finally all melted, we were hit with a heavy rainstorm that caused my basement to flood.

But that's another story.