Tuesday, November 21, 2000

holiday traditions

With the holiday season nearly upon us and my daughter’s first birthday now in the recent past, I find myself wondering about the holiday traditions my wife and I will be able to create for her.

Family traditions, after all, are what make some holidays stand out, and others, well, not stand out. They’re why we will make a big deal out of Christmas next month but will notice Presidents Day only if we don’t have anyone in the White House by that time next year, which given the carnival in Florida lately doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

I find myself wondering what sort of traditions Evangeline will associate with the holidays. Will she grow up with memories of a Christmas tree left up until July? Or will she remember tearing the Christmas wrapping paper from her presents in a disgraceful display of self-indulgence before breakfast, only to realize too late that she’s unwrapped her little brother’s presents and hers are still under the tree?

Christmas is still a little while off, but with Thanksgiving only two days away, I find myself thinking more and more about how my family celebrated Thanksgiving when I was a child.

Thanksgiving always began around 10 a.m. with a bowl of Cheerios and a televised broadcast of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. After about 23 seconds of nonstop excitement listening to someone talk about the Spider-man float and get her facts wrong, I would tear myself away from the television and join my three brothers at looking for something to do until dinner at 6 p.m.

Einstein once theorized that time slows the faster you go. If that’s the case, my brothers and I must have been traveling at something dangerously close to light speed the entire day. The eight hours between breakfast and utter gluttony were the slowest we ever knew.

Part of the problem was the lack of anything structured to do. The TV schedule consisted mainly of annual holiday specials, and it didn’t take a genius to realize that if George Bailey’s friends had bailed him out for the past six years, they probably would rescue the old deadbeat this year too.

Our chief escape from monotony was to take our dog, a half-Cocker spaniel, half-poodle mix named Fonzi, out for a walk. At first, Fonzi shared in our excitement, just as relieved as we were to get out of the house and do something, and he would jump for joy as we reached for his leash.

But as the day wore on, Fonzi’s enthusiasm would ebb, and by the 4 p.m. "Intergalactic Thanksgiving" cartoon, the poor dog had had enough. One of us would reach for his leash, and Fonzi would jump, and run for cover under the living room sofa, where he would whimper and lick his paw pads.

The ennui was even worse when we visited a relative for Thanksgiving, especially if we had to wear the unbearably stiff dress clothes usually reserved for making us uncomfortable during church Sunday morning.

(We mostly endured those visits, but we actually enjoyed ourselves one year when Ward missed the warning that the punch bowl had been spiked and was only for adults.)

I think Fonzi secretly was relieved to have the house to himself for the day those years, and when we came back home, the hunted expression usually was gone from his eyes .

But eventually, whether at a relative’s house or our own, the waiting would end. Amid building excitement, the turkey would emerge from the oven, cooked to a golden-brown perfection and filled with steaming-hot stuffing the Society of Worry-Warts Who Want to Ruin Your Day now tells us it should have given us all salmonella poisoning.

And then, right on cue, my father would get off the sofa in the family room, walk through the kitchen to pick up the bird, and carry it to the dining room table with the ceremony of someone who has slaved over a hot stove all day to make a perfect meal. My mother, unnoticed, slumped into her chair, exhausted.

The seating arrangements also were fixed. My father sat at the head of the table, where he would put the food on plates and serve it to us. I sat at my father’s right hand, within easy swatting distance, and to my right sat my brother Brian.

At my father’s left, also within swatting distance, sat my younger brother, Ward, sandwiched between our two parents since that was the only way they had found to control him.

My brother Herb, two years older than I, sat at the end of the table opposite our father. Herb, my parents had long since discovered, was far past the point of being controllable, and sat there so that my father couldn’t strangle him during dinner.

We always ate Thanksgiving dinner by candlelight, a tradition that made the holiday all the more magical, particularly since no one could tell when we slipped pieces of yams under the table to Fonzi, who had emerged from the sofa once he was sure this wasn’t another ruse to get him to go on a walk.

In truth, I’m not sure why we ate by candlelight. Part of it could be that every time someone stood up at the table, they would bump the chandelier with their heads and as a result we never had more than half the lights in it working at any given time.

I suspect the chief reason is that in the dark, my parents could pretend they didn’t see us hit each other and could even get in a swat or two of their own and feign innocence.

But it was during dinner that the biggest tradition came. This was a tradition so important that we observed it every holiday without fail. Someone, some time, had to spill a glass of milk.

Herb and Ward usually were exempt from spilling anything since they aren’t big milk drinkers and Thanksgiving dinner was one of the few meals we were allowed to have soft drinks, and I did my best to avoid making a mess. I’ll let you figure out for yourself who usually did the honors, and we’ll leave it that.

Suffice it to say that the tradition of the spilled milk is a duty so sacred that last Thanksgiving, I excused myself from the table to call my brothers in Vermont, Indiana and Maryland to let them know the tradition had been upheld and they could eat their meals free of obligation.

And then, as fast as it had begun, it was over. The lights came up, revealing lots of fresh bruises and we would discover that Fonzi didn’t like yams any more than we did. Soon the table was cleared, the milk was cleaned up, and it was time for dessert.

And so it would go year after year. And so here I am, wondering what traditions Natasha and I will be able to create for our family so they can treasure these special days as they grow older.

And more than that, I’m wondering how we’ll survive the process.

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

religious epiphanies on two wheels

I've decided to give up riding my bike for a while. I've been having too many religious experiences on it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for religious experiences. In fact, I've had several of them in my lifetime, including one or two that actually involved God. But I'm not talking about an experience like "Zen and the Art of Schwinn Ten-Speed Maintenance." I'm talking about religious experiences of a wholly different class.

There's certainly nothing about my bike that should make it serve as a magnet for supernatural activity. To the naked eye, it appears to be an unremarkable 21-speed aluminum alloy frame built to endure moderate off-road travel, basically meaning that I should honor signs like "Bridge Out," "Expert Skier Slope" and "Danger: Land Mines."

But you can't fool me. There may be no earthly reason for it, but my bicycle is a greater magnet for spiritual activity than the apartment building Sigourney Weaver lived in for "Ghostbusters."
When I rode my bike to work this summer, I had experiences so spiritual that I practically saw God face to face. Any day now, I expect to come in the door, my face burning with divine glory and my hands holding stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God himself -- assuming I'm not ushered directly into his presence first for all eternity.

The longer commute notwithstanding, there are many physical and psychological benefits to riding a bike to work, and only a few of them involve the humor potential for coworkers when you have an accident in the parking lot. New Jersey, never a state to miss ruining a good thing when the opportunity presents itself, has added another benefit: natural selection.

New Jersey is a state for motorists. If you don't believe me, give it a try. I guarantee that once you take your bike for a spin through New Jersey, friendly-sounding street names like "State Highway Route 206" and signs like "Speed Limit 45" will assume a sinister new gloss.

One stretch of Route 514 in Franklin Township is particularly interesting to bicycle on. The posted speed limit is 45 mph, but this is merely a direct application of Darwin's theories. The road twists and turns so rapidly that trying to manage that speed even in a car is impossible unless you already dabble in the black arts and have offered your next-door neighbor's cat to the Dark Lord.

Bicyclists don't have a prayer. How on earth are you supposed to ride a bike on that kind of road, with cars whizzing by so fast that the wind shear alone doubles your speed? I won't even mention that some cars come so close you can sing along with their radios.

All that said, I find I enjoy the solitary experience of biking, of actually seeing the rows of identical houses with immaculately prim yards and the rabid, slavering dogs that chase me each day. After a while, as fatigue sets in, I don't even notice that my bike leans from one side to the other as I pedal, lurching back and forth like an old sailor whose pegleg has been declared Special of the Month by "Termite" magazine.

But I must cut a lonely figure, and sometimes motorists decide they would rather have me in their front seats. On one particular afternoon, I was already halfway across an intersection when a motorist - let's call him "Bonehead" - stuck his car out so far into the intersection that oncoming traffic screeched to a halt.

As much as I would have appreciated a better view of Bonehead's hood and windshield, I clenched my handbrakes with a grip I typically reserve for the necks of nincompoops in certain favorite fantasies of mine, and in the background heard strains of angels' singing.

But that's not where the story ends. The same thing happened to me a second time less than a mile later, this time with Bonehead's wife. The heavenly music was getting louder now.

The angelic choir burst forth into full rhapsody when I was less than a mile from home, on a stretch of Sandford Street that runs by St. Mary's Church. (A very suitable place for religious experiences, I am told.) The road there is two lanes, with adequate space for parked vehicles or bicyclists.

It is not, however, adequate space for parked vehicles and bicyclists, as I discovered. To ensure that bicyclists don't get any clever ideas about actually riding on the road, the city engineering department measured 300 cars to determine their average width, added half a foot for skinny bikers in case Ichabod Crane ever came that way, and then made the lanes exactly one inch narrower.

I was just passing the statue of Mary when a full host of angels burst into view with a glorious euphony of singing. Behind them was a vast throne, concealed by clouds from which came thunder and lightning.

"You stupid idiot," the angels sang. "Ride your bike on the sidewalk."

Yes, I had had a near-encounter with Bonehead's brother-in-law. If he had had a second coat of paint on his car, I would have had to switch religions in order to appreciate my new oneness with the asphalt.

With my new revelation of knowledge, I have stopped riding my bike principally on the streets, and have taken it a few times onto trails, which I have decided are safer than New Jersey roads.

Even if they do have land mines.

Thursday, August 24, 2000

another year older

As I write this, I am only a few hours away from the big Three-Oh.

Thirty really isn't that old. I don't feel much older than I did when I was turning 29. And it only seems like a few weeks ago that I was a 10-year-old delivering my "Grit" paper route, telling all my customers that it was my birthday and wondering why I was getting such big tips.

Thirty years old. That's nearly half a human lifetime. That's how old Jesus Christ was when he began his ministry. It's nearly as old as Alexander the Great was when he died. And it's older than Peter Parker is in the "Spider-man" comic books. (But not as old as Batman. Bruce Wayne still has a few years on me, I think.)

And as my brother recently pointed out, if I lived in the world of "Logan's Run," this would be the last day of my life, since the sandmen make sure no one lives past 30. Not even people who thought "Logan's Run" was a tedious movie with effects that make "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" look good.

I don't know why, but something about round numbers makes us take notice. So I sit here, while the dials on my chronometer roll inexorably over to Three-Oh and I slide steadily toward ossification and old age, and I find myself wondering what I would do differently if I could live my life over.

First, I would have sold out sooner. I graduated from college in 1992, just at the start of the longest economic growth period in American history. I spent the next two years living below the poverty line in Haiti, where I rarely had electricity and had hot water even less frequently.
Even after I returned to the United States, I continued to work for a better world, first as a teacher and then as a community journalist. Eight years out of school, I still earn less than $30,000 a year, while friends of mine who graduated five years later are making twice that, with better benefits packages, at businesses like Lockheed Martin Co.

I should have gone for the money and saved idealism and self-fulfillment for my retirement years, like everyone else.

Secondly, I would have spent more time watching TV and surfing the Internet. Nothing is worse than listening to a group of other people talking about the previous night's episode of "Seinfeld" or "Survivor," and not having a clue what they're talking about -- especially when you still think "Gilligan's Island" is the funniest thing on TV.

In the ocean of pop culture, I'm a desert island. I don't understand a thing people talk about anymore.

The computer thing is especially galling. Companies like Yahoo! and Netscape, whose services and programs I use regularly, were founded by people my age who now are multimillionaires (see my earlier comment about selling out). I have only a beginning knowledge of HTML, and absolutely no grasp of JavaScript, although I do think that Usenet is pretty neat.

And what really gets my goat is that only three people who read that last line even remember what Usenet was.

Thirdly, I would have said "I told you so" more often, especially back in college when I frequently expressed the minority viewpoint. What's the point in being vindicated if you can't rub the other person's nose in it?

And lastly, I wish I hadn't eaten that second cheeseburger for lunch today. I could have saved the money to buy myself a Coke later in the afternoon.

If I had done these things, perhaps turning 30 wouldn't be so ominous. If I were rich, it wouldn't matter if saying "I told you so" drove away everyone I stumped at TV trivia. Rich people always have parasites and sycophants hanging about them.

And besides, as a multimillionaire I could have afforded not only the cheeseburger and Coke, but an order of fries as well.

Something to shoot for by the time I turn 40.

Tuesday, August 15, 2000

virtual immortality

I wish it hadn't become so easy to attain immortality.

Actual physical immortality is pretty hard to come by. Aside from a half-dozen people in Rhode Island, the only immortal I know of is couch potato Stuart Finnegan of Five Forks, Pa., who got immortality three years ago by eating radioactive banana-flavored Dannon yogurt and who has announced his intention of spending his life watching reruns of "Bowling for Dollars."

For those of us who don't like banana-flavored yogurt, radioactive or otherwise, there is an alternate route to immortality. This usually involves doing things your mother said not to and as a consequence dying prematurely, which, admittedly, takes away some of its charm, but at least people remember you afterward. Like for half a year, if you're lucky.

In the good old days, such feats had to change the course of human history. Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Alaric the Visigoth brought the Roman Empire to its knees.

For my part, I can't even win a game of Risk without using tactical nuclear weapons to rout my opponent's armies. If I saw mold growing on a Petri dish, I probably would try to hide it before my wife saw it and yelled at me for not doing the dishes.

As for bringing an entire civilization to the point of collapse, that is pretty much the sole province of Congress nowadays. I have come close once or twice just this past week, but  I feel guilty if I run five minutes past the limit on the parking meter. I just don't have what it takes to be an anarchist.

What I lack in audacity and skill, I have compensated for in timing. Unlike the larger-than-life villains and heroes of history, I achieved a form of immortality about 10 years ago without even trying. I didn't get any cities named after me like Alexander did, but there are a few directories on web sites and on FTP servers named "David Learn" in my honor.

I was a college student when I discovered the Internet, which in those days was limited primarily to e-mail, listservers and discussion boards called newsgroups. While my peers were developing into full-blown alcoholics, I was on the Star Trek newsgroups, where I soon made my presence known.

I wrote parodies. I wrote fan fiction. I compiled a list of references to Shakespeare within Star Trek. I even posted the first few sections of my honor's thesis on the religious themes of Star Trek. I posted so much that people I had never met knew me by name, quoted me and satirized me.

With the Internet, anyone can be assured of a place in history. When I punched my name into a search engine earlier this month, you probably can guess what I found. Parodies. Stories. Lists. Discussions of whether using the transporter killed people. Debates over whether Kirk was a better captain than Picard. Arguments over whether Lt. Data has a soul.

All of them had my name somewhere, often in the byline. It was as if someone had exhumed all the bodies in my basement and then strewn them across the stage of a twisted production of "This is Your Life."

Given the nature of the Internet, these things likely still will be available if I buy the proverbial farm, kick the proverbial bucket or otherwise end my mortal existence in the next 50 or 60 years. (Please note I said "if." I don't like radioactive yogurt of any flavor, personally, but I'm hopeful I'll find another out.)

There's only one thing I can do to stop this from being my legacy.

Anyone know any civilizations to topple?

Copyright © 2000 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, July 28, 2000

car repairs for dummies

I'd like to take this opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding people might have about me. I'm really not that mechanically inclined. Not at all, actually. In fact, I have what you might call a mechanical disinclination.

My latest display of deficiency in the area of mechanics began with car trouble recently. For some reason, my car -- named Bluebeard, though neither I nor it ever has pursued a career in piracy -- for the last four months has been creating more pollution than the entire New Jersey Turnpike. I finally took it to a mechanic three weeks ago when I found a massive yellow puddle under the engine.

Taking my car to the garage for maintenance isn't my first impulse. While in Haiti, I learned the value of knowing how to perform at least routine maintenance on vehicles. It was there I finally learned which end of a screwdriver is useful for turning screws -- the pointy end -- and which is meant for hitting yourself in the head when you realize you just compounded the problem. (The one without the sharp point. Trust me.)

So when I returned from Haiti and bought a Buick Century from my brother, I quickly became acquainted with a ratchet set and a few other tools, and took to changing the oil in my car and performing minor repairs myself. That lasted about a year, until that car met an untimely end in a head-on collision.

At that point, it was time to upgrade to a maroon Chevrolet that required a little more maintenance. After the accident, all that worked on my Buick was the trunk. By coincidence, it seemed the trunk was all that worked on the Chevrolet when I bought that.

One of the first major systems to go was the exhaust system, and it went in style. In less than a year, I had to replace the muffler twice, and the intermediary pipe, front pipe and catalytic converter once each.

My neighbors became accustomed to seeing me out in the parking lot with my trusty toolbox, rachet set and screwdrivers. They assumed this meant I knew a lot about cars, but that's not quite true. I was getting very familiar with my car, especially with its exhaust system, which I had to reattach at least twice a week because I never seemed to get it on right and it kept falling off.

The same summer the exhaust system went, I also had to replace the car's radiator. This ended up being fortunate, although I didn't realize that when it happened. At the time, I was too annoyed at being stuck somewhere on Route 30 in the middle of rural Pennsylvania at 3 a.m. to appreciate how lucky I was.

Well, I learned to appreciate that mishap less than three weeks ago. The mechanic we take our car to listed nearly $1,000 worth of repairs Bluebeard needed: a new head gasket, repair work to the front axle assembly or something, and a new radiator. At least the trunk still opened and closed.

"Oh, a radiator's easy to replace," remembering that my brother Brian and I had changed the one in Bluebeard in less than 40 minutes back in 1995. "How much will we save if I do that myself?"

My reasoning went like this: Garages mark up the cost of parts, and often charge exorbitant amounts for labor. If I could buy a used radiator and do the work myself, I could save a bundle. My brother Herb repairs his and his wife's car all the time, and saves a small fortune in the process.

(Somehow it escaped my attention that Herb never has any weekends or evenings to himself. They're all spent doing repair work.)

I should mention that my brother Herb is one of those fortunate people who Has A Clue. He's only two years older than me, but when it comes to mechanical inclination, my brother Herb is beyond a shadow of a doubt a more highly evolved life form.

By the time he was 12, he could patch the inner tubes on his bicycle, tighten its chain, adjust the hand brakes and straighten the frame he had bent double by not-quite jumping across Sulfur Creek, all while getting his friends to cut the grass for him.

Compare that to me. Just two weeks ago, I took my bike to a service station because its tires were flat, and stared at the air pump for five minutes before figuring out how to get it to work.

The disparity is pretty severe. Over the past ten years or so, my brother has grown accustomed to getting calls whenever I have a question.

"What's the problem?" he asks in a typical conversation.

"The engine makes loud grinding noises whenever I start the car, and then flames appear unless I put the hood down."

"When's the last time you changed your oil?"


Fortunately, radiators are as easy to change as my memories suggested. And if it gets too confusing, I have a Haynes repair manual that explains in plain language everything I need to know about repairing my car.

At least that's the claim the manual makes on the cover.

Directions actually went something like this: "Be sure to reconstitute the osculatory valve before defenestrating the isolinear filtration matrix under the krammer block. You will need a Hackerman wrench for this. See Figure 3A, conveniently indistinguishable from a dead otter, to locate the osculatory valve."

The first step is to flush the coolant system. In a healthy car, coolant is a mixture of antifreeze and water, and is fatal to drink. What came from Bluebeard's radiator looked like a mixture of dijon mustard and water, and probably would have been fatal to touch. It ran yellow for nearly a minute, and then it was time to begin disconnecting things.

Next step was to disconnect the fan, the air filter and a few other things to have unobstructed access to the hoses and clamps. That was no big deal, but once that was done, another obstacle presented itself.

Twin lines run from the radiator to the transmission, and the components that tap into the radiator often have corroded extensively by the time the car is eight years old. We soaked them with Liquid Wrench to get them loose and still managed to strip one.

A stripped nut doesn't come off with a wrench, which meant one thing: time to get the hacksaw and cut the line in two.

It just went downhill from there. Junkyards in the area that sell used auto parts usually would charge about $20 for a used radiator, but no one I contacted had one for my make of car. A parts store I'll call "Zesty Boys" wanted $170 for a new one. I found the same radiator elsewhere for only $87, but I still saw my potential savings going up in smoke.

That Saturday, a week after I brought Bluebeard home, I took my new radiator home and began installing it. It took a little longer than I had expected, and it didn't save me as much money, but it was done.

Or so I thought. Remember that line I had to cut in two? Well, I didn't, and realized my mistake only after I finished installing the radiator and putting everything back together I had dismantled in what I fervently hoped was the right order.

Getting a new plug -- properly called a "line starter" -- became a living nightmare. A nearby garage specializing in radiators didn't carry them at all. A parts store carried them, but not in the size I needed. And the employees at Zesty Boys didn't even know what I was talking about.

"You mean a radiator hose, right?" one worker said, pointing out the one-inch hoses I didn't need.

"Where's this go on the radiator again?" another worker asked.

"You want to buy a new radiator?" suggested a third.

I was starting to get the picture. "I don't think they even know what a car engine is at Zesty Boys," I told a manager at a different parts store who knew what I was looking for but didn't have them.

My final solution was to take the new radiator back out of the car, put it in the box and drive to a parts store to show them exactly what I needed. Total cost for the part: 95 cents.

Time to complete the job: 15 days.

Total savings: $4.23.

You would think I would learn from experiences like this, but the prognosis is doubtful. Just yesterday, I bought a new vent for our dryer. Think how much money we'll save if I put it in myself ...

Friday, July 14, 2000

mattress of my heart

Have you ever had a relationship so deep and meaningful that when it ended, you felt as though a part of you had died?

I have. For the past 12 months, Natasha and I have shared our house, our back yard - yes, our very lives - with a mattress called Spring Air. Initially, I admit, we regarded Spring Air as an inconvenience, a twin-size mattress left in the driveway by the house's previous owner, but as time went on, Spring Air came to mean something more. Something special.

It grew on us slowly, but when we threw a housewarming party last July, Spring Air was there, along with some of our best friends from church and from college. It said little, being shy, and it mostly hang out on the side of the house away from the guests rather than mingle with them.

This behavior didn't particularly surprise me. Mattresses are not social creatures, and they rarely spend much time with more than one or two people in the course of their lives. This also probably was its first party, so some bashfulness was to be expected.

But there was no mistaking the sensation it caused. In its own quiet way, Spring Air quickly became a conversation piece among our guests, who invariably revered it as the most unusual piece of patio furniture they ever had seen. Our picnic table and every one of our chairs have been used repeatedly, but not one person dared to use Spring Air for an afternoon nap. Such was the respect we held it in.

In time, Spring Air became something of an attraction, or perhaps a celebrity. People came from Maryland, from Pennsylvania, from Arizona and from Vermont and asked to see the mattress. Ours became known as the only house on the block - perhaps in the city or in all New Jersey -- to have a mattress in the back yard.

Spring Air became like family to us. It stayed with us all summer long and into the autumn. When Hurricane Floyd hit New Jersey last September, destroying communities like Manville and Bound Brook, the mattress stoically braved the elements and protected our house as best it could.

When our daughter was born, Spring Air kept vigil while we were at the hospital. And when we brought Evangeline home for the first time, it was there, waiting for us patiently, and never once reproached me for not telling it when she had been born.

To my knowledge, the mattress never once asked for anything. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and Easter all came and went, and Spring Air stayed outside on the patio without once asking to come in and dry out.

From time to time, Natasha gently would hint that Spring Air had overstayed its welcome, and she would ask me to escort it to the roadside.

"I think we have to make special arrangements before they'll take it away," I would say as I stalled for time.

And so the days passed. Snow fell, lingered and melted away. Winter turned to spring, and in their turn, spiders, insects and a few species of mold I've never identified made that mattress their home.

Trouble began brewing in the spring. Leaves that had gone unraked over the winter because my time was needed inside with the baby had piled up against Spring Air, and as they rotted around it, the mattress began to make a stink. Its bright colors had faded, and visitors who saw Spring Air began to remark that it should go.

The fateful day arrived early one morning in late May. Walking back from the university one morning, Natasha saw something that sent a thrill up her spine. A homeowner a block away from us had put a queen-size mattress and box spring out on the curb with his regular garbage.

I knew as soon as she told me that Spring Air's days were numbered. Less than a week later, I dragged it out to the curb. Time and the elements had not been kind to our guest. Practically new when we had moved in, it had aged prematurely, and I knew it was time to put it down.

I leaned it against a tree between our house and the one next door in case there was an extra fee associated with leaving oversize items out for collection, and I said my goodbyes.

"I guess this is it," I said. "It's best if you leave tomorrow morning. I don't want the zoning officer to fine us for keeping you outside. It's probably against a city ordinance."

Spring Air said nothing, and wouldn't even look at me. I could tell I had hurt its feelings.

The next morning I watched, misty-eyed, as city workers picked up our departing tenant and threw it into the garbage truck. Even from where I stood, I could feel its resentment as this betrayal.

"I could have stayed forever," it seemed to say sullenly. "See how your flowers and picnic table fare. I never would have biodegraded on you."

I watched as it rode slowly away aboard the garbage truck. It never even tried to look back.

Copyright © 2000 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, July 07, 2000


Don Miguel Cervantes de Saavadera once observed that there is nothing so bad that you can't find something good in it.

He got away with saying that because the worst he had to contend with was an abudance of trashy stories about knight-errantry. Cervantes never once had to read "Jane Eyre" or, worse, watch a soap opera.

I have. Although "Jane Eyre" thankfully is in my past, for two weeks while I was on vacation, I was subjected twice daily to the modern-day horror called soap operas. Two weeks later, I still am suffering post-traumatic syndrome from what I endured. I'll refer to these soaps as "Puerto Carlos" and "Major Hospital" to avoid offending any fans who might read this.

It's not as though I wanted to watch soap operas on vacation. I tried to do some writing, and I tried to do some reading, but just being in the same room as the TV set was enough to be sullied. It's like the time I played rugby in my school uniform, only I don't know of any laundry detergent that can remove these ugly marks from my psyche, no matter how hard I scrub.

The dreary flicker of the TV screen and the combination of bad acting, worse directing and really terrible writing kept dragging me into the show with the same horrified fascination I feel driving past a car wreck. I couldn't look away no matter how hard I tried.

I was so appalled by what I was watching, I decided to call ABC from a morbid curiosity to know where they get their soap opera writers, but since I was calling at night when rates are cheaper, no one was there except a janitor named Bob.

From what Bob told me, all the major networks, not just ABC, use a special test to find the right people for major soap-writing jobs. Anyone who has read books for pleasure and not just for a book report, who can name three presidents of the United States in any order, or who knows how to use the word "obviate" in a sentence, is disqualified immediately and shipped book-rate to Rhode Island.

Every now and then, Bob said, someone with actual talent manages to slip through the cracks. When that happens, the networks neutralize them with specially trained directors who pick the most melodramatic facial expressions and postures the actors can assume and let the camera linger painfully for three or four seconds on them at the end of every scene.

Nothing worthwhile survives of the plots these soaps have.

I'm sorry, did I say these things have a plot? My mistake. Plots have a clear beginning, middle and end. Academians claim there are three basic plots in all literature: man against man, man against himself, and man against God, although in each case the writer has tremendous freedom to define what man is, what God is, and what it means to work against something.

Soap operas don't have plots. They have storylines, which also happen to come in a set of three: sleeping with someone, planning to commit murder, and manipulating people. Sometimes the writers will try to get creative by combining the three.

On "Puerto Carlos," one of the storylines I saw involved the disappearance of Luke Steffan, who like everyone else on the show is a manipulative and controlling fart.

As the story unfolds, about twelve minutes after Luke Steffan disappears, the city prosecutor decides he was murdered and immediately arrests Luke Steffan's neighbor Rufus for the crime, judging that the complete lack of evidence is merely proof of Rufus' criminal genius.

As viewers, we of course know that Rufus is innocent of foul play, because he was having an affair with the prosecutor's wife, teen-age daughter and sheepdog Muffie when the alleged murder occurred.

About a week later, those clever writers reveal that Luke Steffan simply ran off to use the bathroom when no one was looking and went on a drinking binge.

When he finally comes to himself, he is in Paris, France, with 40,000 Mexican pesos and a passport that identifies him as a purebred German shepherd named "XP39 Heart Breaker of Sunnymead Farm."

But in order to lose viewers interested in Rufus' efforts to defend himself from charges of murder and stay free of Muffie's canine machinations, the writers also develop a number of other storylines, none especially relevant to his situation.

At the same time Rufus escapes from jail, Lucille's adopted 1-year-old daughter is kidnapped by her biological mother and taken to Kzakhastan, a woman named Charlie tries to kill the man she blames for her recent miscarriage, and 33 other people plot to take over the world, or at least the board of directors of Major Hospital.

Confusing? That's not even half of it. By the time our vacation ended, Luke Steffan had been thrown into the pound because he didn't have a dog license, Rufus had disappeared to escape being framed, Muffie had bitten the prosecutor on the leg, the kidnapped little girl was found at Wal-Mart in a different set of clothes and with a new haircut, and the entire board of directors of Major Hospital quit when the hospital's snack machine ran out of yellow Zingers.

Now I'm not saying these things don't happen in real life -- although I honestly can't say I know of anyone they've happened to -- but if they happened as regularly in real life as they did on soap operas, Jerry Springer would be out of business.

Friday, June 30, 2000

tombstone's obsession

Vacations are a special event for a family. Done properly, they can create memories for the entire family to share with one another for years to come. Done poorly, they can create memories the family will be sharing with a therapist.

Planning a vacation therefore is an important process. Among the considerations are where to go, how to get there, and whether there is anyone you can stay with to avoid the cost of a hotel. Natasha, Evangeline and I just a week ago returned from our first major vacation as a family. Our answers to those questions, in order, were Arizona, flying and Natasha's mother.

Now many people think of Arizona as a desert state with a lot of sand and a lot of cacti. While that has some truth to it, Arizona also is home to the only pothole in the Union -- The Grand Canyon -- bigger than the one at the corner of Sandford Street and Commercial Avenue in New Brunswick, N.J.

The Grand Canyon is a truly inspiring site, carved through solid rock so we are told over millennia by the Colorado River, which in turn has the most dangerous and exciting rapids to go rafting on.

The colors at the Grand Canyon at sunset defy description. It is as though God creates a new master painting each evening, and when he calls the stars forth one by one, you are humbled to see how amazingly small and finite you really are.

I would go on, but I've never been to the Grand Canyon. Instead, we visited another site Arizona is famous for, the OK Corral. (Not to be confused with that famous church hymn, "The OK Chorale.")

The gunfight at the OK Corral probably is history's best-known and best-loved shoot-out. It's got all the elements of a crowd-pleaser. It's got guns. It's got bullets. It's got dead bodies piled up sky-high. It's got the law fighting the bad guys, and winning. Best of all, it's (relatively) true.

So it's no surprise that the gunfight has appeared in movies like the 1993 film "Tombstone" and the imaginatively named 1957 film "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," and in episodes of "Star Trek," "Dr. Who" and "Mr. Peabody."

If you believe Hollywood's rendition of Wyatt Earp, the late federal marshal was a hero who fought the cowboy gang and ended the reign of the lawless wealth-makes-right in the Old West.

This is a lie. That was not accomplished until 1985 in Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider."

Wyatt Earp actually was little different from the Clantons and McLaurys, whom he, his brothers and Doc Holliday, fought at the OK Corral. The chief difference was that the Earps and Doc Holliday had badges. Otherwise, they pretty much were the same kind of thugs as the Clantons, except that Doc Holliday may have been even meaner.

Of course, it's hardly surprising that Hollywood would treat Wyatt Earp less than accurately. After all, "Tombstone" showed Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday firing a 12-gauge shotgun no fewer than three times without reloading, a task only slightly more believable than Gene Kelly getting 30 shots from a six-shooter, Roy Rogers shooting the guns from the desperadoes' hands, or a certain other cowboy actor being elected president.

Ironically, nearly every movie about the OK Corral was filmed, not at Tombstone, but more than an hour away in Old Tucson Studios. Still, Tombstone draws enough tourists that the city government has made it illegal to ask, "What would you like on your Tombstone?" when you are standing in the frozen pizza aisle.

Tombstone has other history outside the Earps, including a haunted mine and two fires that nearly destroyed the town, but everything seems to run back to Wyatt Earp in the end. The ghost story is tied to the basement of Big Nose Kate's Saloon, where "The Legend of the Swamper" is the subject of a free pamphlet. A 17-page booklet about Wyatt Earp (there he is again) and Doc Holliday costs $5.

One clothing store boasts it used to be the saloon where Wyatt Earp (there he is again) ran a gambling table for playing faro. Other places are identified as the office Doc Holliday used while he still practiced medicine, the room where Big Nose Kate lived (the prostitute who also was Doc Holliday's girlfriend), where the Clanton brothers were buried, where Morgan Earp (there's his brother) was killed, and on and on.

Over by the OK Corral is the a photo gallery of work by C.S. Fly, the photographer of the Old West who took the famous pictures we have of Geronimo, the Apache Indians, Tombstone after the fires, other parts of the Old West and Wyatt Earp. (There he is again.)

It got to the point that when I used the bathroom at Big Nose Kate's Saloon (built on the site of the Grand Hotel, where the Clantons and McLaurys stayed the night before the gunfight), I half-expected to see a sign identifying the urinal that Wyatt Earp used when he'd had too much to drink.

It gets overwhelming after a while.

Natasha, her mother, Evangeline and I were in Tombstone for less than a day, but I can't help it. I've developed an obsession with Wyatt Earp. I've told everyone I could about my trip to Tombstone and what I learned about him.

It's not enough. I have an overwhelming compulsion to run out and buy copies of "Tombstone," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "My Darling Clementine" on video and watch all three of them sequentially and concurrently. I want to buy the movie posters and decorate my living room with them.

This never would have happened if we had gone to Moose Lake, Minn., like I had suggested. The only thing Moose Lake has going for it that I know of is a gratuitous reference in a VeggieTales video.

Our Arizona vacation was supposed to help me unwind from work and keep my sanity. Instead, my mind is slipping faster and faster into an Earpocentric dementia. Instead of beginning to assemble timeless memories, I've begun to assemble psychoses to unload to a licensed therapist.

Next time we go on vacation, we're going someplace without a history, even if it means I have to carry Natasha all the way to Moose Lake myself.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

the real lucers

I used to think that if you wanted to offend someone, you had to do something, well, offensive. Something like feeding them soup made with Puppy Chow, playing "Elton John's Greatest Hits" over and over again, or e-mailing them copies of a column you write.

I've been set straight on that score. Apparently, all you have to do is make a movie that satirizes them, their favorite TV show and the actors from that TV show, and they'll get offended. They get even more offended if you do it well.

In this case, my friend told me how offended he was by "Galaxy Quest," a movie that does all those things for Star Trek, when I casually remarked that I had seen it had been released on videotape and was hoping to buy a used copy when one became available.

My friend, who regularly reminds me that "Trekkies" are the really far-out fans and that "Trekkers" is the preferred term for fans who don't require medication, wasn't amused by the movie. In fact, he was a little put off.

"Why does everyone like to pick on Star Trek fans?" he demanded angrily. "We're not freaks. We just like good sci-fi."

I avoided the obvious cheap shot -- that people make fun of us because it's so easy -- and conceded that he had a point. Trekkies -- excuse me, Trekkers -- love lots of good science fiction, including the novels of Larry Niven, shows like "Babylon 5," and other great epics, like "Zombies of the Stratosphere."

My friend was absolutely right. Trekkies -- sorry, I mean Trekkers -- clearly have been the victims of a media smear campaign.

But if Star Trek fans aren't the geeks we've always thought, then who is? Because there are a lot of geeks in the world, and they have to belong to some easily identifiable group. That's how it works, and a TV show is a good a basis for the designation as anything else.

After giving the matter a lot of thought, I finally realized the truth. The TV show that has inspired unthinkable levels of zaniness and belief-defying antics from its fans is "I Love Lucy." Those are the real freaks among us, not the Save our Sesame Street militia, not the politicians, not the newspaper editors and columnists, and certainly not the Trekkies. (Trekkers. Sorry.)

In its time, "I Love Lucy" has spawned no fewer than three sequels -- "Lucy and Ricky," "The Lucy Show" and "Here's Lucy" -- that continued in the same tried-and-true formula as the original, with little fresh creative spark to make them stand out.

Star Trek can't ever compare to that.

The Lucy phenomenon is the driving force behind massive conventions within Lucy fandom. These events happen regularly, and draw attendees from hundreds of miles away, who come dressed as their favorite characters. They even have contests among redheads to see who looks the most like Lucy. Sick, sick, sick!

And then there's the real whacked-out fans who know unhealthy amounts of trivia about "I Love Lucy," including the names of bit characters, other shows those actors appeared in, original episode air dates, entire runs of dialogue and the backstage quarrels of the actors.

While we're at it, let's not forget Barbara Adams, the woman dismissed from jury duty on the Whitewater trial in Little Rock, Ark., because she kept coming to court dressed like Little Ricky, complete with a miniature bongo drum. Reports even have it that her co-workers call her "Junior."

Actually, I'm surprised it took me so long to finger the Lucy fans as such oddballs. The Lucy phenomenon has been documented quite thoroughly in the media. Pop culturalists have written books about the zany antics of "Lucy" fans and the strong political themes the show addressed.

For a show from the early days of television, fans say, "I Love Lucy" confronted several major issues of its day. There was an episode about U.S.-Cuba relations, dealt with through a clever parallel built around uranium mining, another episode about McCarthyism, and a third about the rising price of toilet paper.

And then there's the infamous honor's thesis, written in college by someone whose name I have forgotten, about the religious themes of "I Love Lucy," including the death of God, the return to Paradise and the failure of traditional religion.

It should be clear by now who the real losers are.

Trekkies -- I mean Trekkers -- you stand absolved of all charges of geekiness of which you formerly have been accused. The real geeks, clearly, are the Lucies.

Sorry. I mean the Lucers.

Thursday, June 22, 2000

restaurant deficiencies

There are three things I hate about eating out. Not having a baby changing station in the men's room is one of them. Needing to wear long pants and a sweater in the middle of the summer is a second.

But the worst one has to be the way waiters like to take my food away before I've finished eating. You would think that since the waiter is the one who took my order, he should be aware that I probably have designs on those last eight ounces of my 10-ounce New York strip steak. But somewhere between taking my order and asking if everything is all right, most waiters' brains short-circuit.

Part of this might stem from a misguided attempt waiters make to spare their customers the embarrassment of waiting around for five hours, twiddling their thumbs and whistling along to old Tiffany or Rick Astley tunes as they try to get the waiter's attention, while the food slowly turns green and hairy.

The truth of the matter is that restaurants specially train their waiters to snatch food away from hungry customers. These commando waiters watch from a safe vantage point where the customers cannot see them, and study their customers' body temperature, posture and conversational habits.

At the critical moment when the customer is distracted, the waiters strike and make off with the uneaten portion of the meal, which they carry to the kitchen and -- in great deference to the starving billions worldwide, including the customer who is now staring, fork in hand, at an empty table -- toss it into the garbage.

This might seem like a clever ploy to speed customers through their relaxed and enjoyable night out so the restaurant can serve more customers, but that's only the beginning of the plot. The truth is that restaurants count on customers not to be confrontational and to ask for an overpriced dessert menu item instead of trying to keep their food.

"Why yes," waiters imagine their customers -- especially those who skip off to the bathroom for five minutes partway through a meal -- I realize I paid $11.95 for this ridiculously small portion and have had only two bites, but I'd love it if you would throw it out for me. While you're at it, could you starve some Ethiopians too?"

One time it really annoyed me, Natasha and I were eating at TGI Friday's in North Brunswick, N.J., with her uncle. I left the table for two minutes. When I came back, my plate was gone, and with it half my order of french fries.

And I don't mean Natasha ate them, although she has been known to do that.

"Can I get you anything else?" our waitress asked about five minutes later.

"Yes," I wanted to snap. "I'd like you to give me back my food that you threw away."

Two things constrained me: first, the manners I learned as a child and the desire to make a good impression on my uncle-in-law, whom I just had met; and second, I really didn't want her to dig the fries out of the trash. God only knows what would have been on them.

So I bit my tongue and said nothing, and tightened my belt that night when I went home, to cover the hunger pains.

No more. I'm tired of being pushed around by high-schoolers and college students. I've decided to fight back. My inspiration for this, as in much else, is my beloved wife.

Back when she was pregnant with our daughter, Natasha was unstoppably ravenous. A waitress at some restaurant we were visiting noticed Natasha had paused eating for five seconds in order to respond to a comment I had made about a movie we had seen recently. The commando waitress swooped down on our table from wherever she had been hiding when I had wanted a refill on my Coke, and snatched up Niki's plate.

"Let me get rid of that for you," the waitress said pleasantly.

I never had seen Natasha move so quickly. Before I could say, "Halla banana o'wickle sticks," Natasha was out of the booth and running across the floor. She slammed into the poor woman, grabbed the plate with both hands and growled, "I'm not done with my potato yet!"

The rest of dinner passed without incident, but I noticed an animal-control van circling the restaurant when we left half an hour later.

On a recent Saturday, Natasha and I were having dinner at Jonathan's Cork in Tucson, Ariz. I won't explain why we were eating at such an upscale restaurant because that would unduly embarrass Ted and Michelle Kaseler, whose wedding rehearsal we just had come from.

I was about three-quarters of the way through my salad when my wife reported that our daughter had received and answered nature's call, and that I had to take the baby back to the men's room and change her diaper. (Now you understand my opening remark that restaurants should have changing stations in the men's rooms.)

As I stood up, baby in tow, I told my table companions, "Don't let him take my salad. I'm not done yet."

You can guess what was missing when I came back five minutes later.

I was annoyed, not just because "I'm not finished with my salad" had been translated into "He can take it away," but because I really am trying to eat healthier, and this commando waiter hadn't even checked with me first before he throw out what was left of my food. To add insult to injury, he didn't even refill my water.

So when he came back to deliver the main course, I told him about the mistake he had made and that I'd like it set to rights.

"Dave, just drop it," one dining partner urged me.

I didn't. I couldn't. It was the principle of the thing. If he had said my haircut makes me look like Jim Carrey, I could have ignored it. If he had crossed his eyes at me, pulled at the corners of his mouth with his index fingers, stuck out his tongue and said, "This is you," I could have ignored it.

But he hadn't done those things. He had thrown out perfectly good food that he had served to me, without speaking to me first. It was an honest mistake, but it still was a mistake.

I didn't grab the waiter and put him in a choke hold or force him to apologize. I didn't raise my voice or use inappropriate language. But I made my point, and I got a new salad.

And maybe if they see the dirty diaper in the wastebasket in the men's room, they'll realize how fortunate they were that we had taken a changing pad to the restaurant with us, and they'll decide they need a better changing station than the sink counter.

Friday, June 09, 2000

nothing saps the spirits like a summer cold

The worst part of having facial hair is all the mucus that gets caught in my mustache when I'm sick.

One hairy fellow I met back in 1992 complained that catching food there was the worst part of having a beard. With all due respect to Cookie and his greater number of years of experience with facial hair, I have to disagree. Aside from the slice of watermelon that was stuck there for three weeks after a picnic last summer, I've never once had food caught in my beard.

I wish it were the same for other items as well. But every time I've blown my nose the past three days, there have been not-so-subtle trails left behind, and when I've woken up in the morning, the hairs under my nose have been painfully stiff, like the spears of a tiny army on my upper lip, poised to strike the first enemy they encounter.

All that's stopped me from shaving it all off and being rid of the nuisance is the prospect of having to clean my electric razor afterward.

For the past few days I have been as sick as the proverbial dog. It's not as debilitating as the time I had amoebic dysentery, nor as painful as when I had dengue fever, but in the past three days I've coughed so much that my head feels like a tree that's gone two rounds with a lumberjack. My joints ache, my muscles are sore and even my toenails feel too tight.

Nothing saps the spirits like a summer cold. This one has left me ill-tempered, out of sorts and delirious. I've slept later and for longer hours, and even when I'm not asleep, I just lie around and generally am unproductive. (Once I figure out how all this differs from when I'm healthy, I'll let you know.)

And yet, despite the incongruity, I find that colds actually bring back some nice memories. When I was a child, my mother had a special knack for taking care of us when we were sick. Aside from the usual benefits of being sick - staying home from school, sleeping on the sofa and watching TV all day, and getting out of delivering our paper routes - my mother would say at least once a cold, "You know, you would feel a lot better if you could throw up that big glob of mucus in your stomach."

Something about those words gave them a measure of healing power. Mom would trot out her magic phrase, and in no time the sick person would rush to follow the prescribed treatment, along with anyone else who had been within earshot. To this day, whenever I get sick, I can still hear her saying those magic words.

Natasha of course has extended her wifely sympathies to me the past few days. Earlier today, after I had taken a shower, dressed and changed the baby's diaper, I announced I was going back to bed for a nap.

"What?" she said. "But you just woke up!"

It was less than an hour later that I saw how much she truly cared. The bowl of cereal I ate for breakfast proved to be too solid for my stomach to handle, and I found myself rushing to the bathroom to follow my mother's timeless advice.

I could read Natasha's thoughts like a book. "Poor Dave," she thought. "I can't stand to hear him suffer." And with that she closed the bathroom door and played a Steve Taylor CD as loudly as she could.

Of course, now I seem to be on the mend from my cold, while Natasha is just beginning her turn. Since I've had what she is getting, she has my full sympathies.

But at least she doesn't have a mustache.

Copyright 2000 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 01, 2000

ghost story

Lovella Paradiso believes in ghosts.

In the six years she has lived in her Manville residence, Ms. Paradiso believes she has witnessed several manifestations of supernatural presence. Three ghosts in particular dominated our talk about the appearances: a Civil War soldier, a voyeur and a ghost cat.

"I don't like saying the house is haunted," she said. "It has things we haven't been able to explain with a rational answer. A lot of things."

I've always been a sucker for ghost stories, so when a search for Web sites related to Manville turned up a paranormal-themed site with a 2-year-old post about Ms. Paradiso's house, my curiosity was piqued.

Ms. Paradiso works as a Web graphics designer for a Bridgewater firm. During our meeting, she kept stressing that she sought a naturalist explanation before falling back on the supernatural, and more than once expressed concern about how she would appear for talking about ghosts. To corroborate her story was Sal DiBernado of East Brunswick, who lived in the house from 1996-1999.

The first ghost Ms. Paradiso encountered at the house was Charlie, whom she pictures as blond, broad-shouldered, clean-shaven and more than 6 feet tall. She believes Charlie was a soldier in the Civil War.

"I had a dream of him walking through the hallway and just walking down the flight of stairs," said Ms. Paradiso.

Her landlady, who used to live in the house, had a similar dream, said Ms. Paradiso. They discovered the coincidence by accident.

Charlie left in 1996, after Ms. Paradiso and her roommates performed a cleansing ritual that tried to direct him to the afterlife. The ritual involves burning white sage and visualizing the ghost entering the next world.

"After you go and bless the rooms, you're supposed to go and sit and relax," said Ms. Paradiso. "I said something to the effect of, 'May you be free and go to the Light, and be with your loved ones."

During this time, she said, a housemate named Eric — not available for the interview — entered a trance and told Charlie to go be with his "wife and child," she said. Eric has no recollection of the experience, said Ms. Paradiso.

"It sounds like something flaky, but I was there, and he was white-faced," she said.

The second ghost, called The Watcher, is less benign than Charlie, although its activities have been limited to the basement, which had been converted into an apartment until Hurricane Floyd.

"When this closet door was open, you would always feel that you were being watched," she said.
Ms. Paradiso and Mr. DiBenardo said that no one they knew who rented the basement apartment was able to sleep down there because of The Watcher's oppressiveness. Nor was anyone able to stay there longer than six months.

A videotape Ms. Paradiso and her friends tried to take of the Watcher revealed nothing unusual except an odd light they later duplicated by driving past the house with headlights on. A second attempt captured a scream none of them had heard while the tape was recording.

"All of a sudden it was a loud but faint high-pitched scream," said Ms. Paradiso. "We all heard it and have never watched it since."

Ms. Paradiso was unable to locate the tape for me.

A third appeared in the basement in 1998 as a shadowy catlike specter. By April 1999 it had become a solid-looking black cat close to twice the size of Ms. Paradiso's black cat, Toby.

The similarity in appearance is enough that in the summer of 1998, the housemate Eric mistook the cat for Toby. When he called it, the ghost cat swatted at him, spat and jumped away.

"Toby doesn't do that," said Ms. Paradiso. "All my cats and dogs are friendly, people-friendly."

Toby, in fact, was inside the house in a room with a closed door all the time, Ms. Paradiso said.
Another time Ms. Paradiso followed the ghost cat down the hallway and watched it enter the bathroom. When she followed it in, the ghost cat disappeared.

"It's occurred to me The Watcher and the cat could be one and the same because The Watcher has not been seen since the cat appeared," said Ms. Paradiso.

Looking at the ghost cat also creates the same feeling of disquiet as being studied by The Watcher, said Ms. Paradiso.

Ms. Paradiso is reluctant to try the same cleansing ritual with the ghost cat that she performed with Charlie.

"If it's that powerful that it's manifested itself as a large feline creature, I'd rather have an expert," she said.

The house has had several other incidents Ms. Paradiso has been unable to explain: whistling in an empty shower when the only person in the house is in another room, music and lights that come on spontaneously, parts of the house that always are cold, unusual animal behavior — the pets frequently act disturbed by the supernatural presences — and heightened personal conflicts.

"To be honest, it's the house," said Mr. DiBenardo. "I hate being here. It's just something about the house, I could never just relax here."

Ms. Paradiso posted a brief description of the events in her house to the Web site I found. In addition to my interest, the post has attracted former residents of the house.

"The last response to me was, 'Thank God, because I know I'm not nuts,'" she said. "She only lived here six months. She saw and heard things here, and she thought she was going nuts."

So where did the ghosts come from? In most ghost stories, the haunting resulted from a violent death or unsolved crime. Ms. Para diso's house is about 50 years old, and she is unaware of any such history to it.

"I have three theories. The first and probably most logical is that someone died on the land the house is built on," she said. "There might also be a portal into the world here, for whatever reason."

The last possibility Ms. Paradiso mentions is that she herself is a magnet for the spirit world. Spirits might sense that she is sensitive to the spiritual world, and seek her out.

"Spirits — ones that are trapped, are looking for a way out, a way in, a loved one — will gather around someone they think can help them," she said.

While I was there, I saw nothing suggestive of the occult or the supernatural, even around the Ouija board in the basement. If there are ghosts in Ms. Paradiso's house, I didn't see any.

But while I'm able to maintain my journalistic skepticism, Mr. DiBenardo doesn't need more evidence. After living in the house for three years, he's convinced.

"I've always believed in spirits and ghosts, but I was very skeptical," he said. "I moved into this house and let me tell you, I believe 100 percent."

Tuesday, April 18, 2000

coulda been a contender

When John Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a resounding critique of the social inequities of his day. Considered his masterpiece, the novel follows a family of Oklahoma farmers as they travel to California in the midst of the Dust Bowl.

To say the book was controversial would be an understatement. A 1940 movie version of the book had to be filmed under a different title, and in his personal life Steinbeck became aware of plans to frame him for rape. Despite its controversy, The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's best-known book, and a theatrical adaptation of the play opened on Broadway under the direction of Frank Galati, who adapted the book to the stage.

Skip forward another 10 years, more than 60 years after Steinbeck first wrote his novel, to Neshanic Station. Out at their converted-schoolhouse theater, Somerset Valley Players is readying for a production of the play, which opens April 28. A few months ago, the company's audition notice caught my eye.

I don't have much stage experience. In fact, aside from a few church dramas I've acted in, and a class play when I was in second grade, my acting resume is restricted solely to being rejected from Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound when I was in college. But I've enjoyed the scraps of acting I've had so far.

I head west on Amwell Road to the theater for auditions at 7 p.m. March 5, just when Somerset Valley Players was getting ready to begin its production of Mr. Roberts. In the theater's basement, I meet Tony Adase, director of the upcoming production. Also ready to audition is Phil Hochman, a 72-year-old Plainfield resident.

Unlike me, Mr. Hochman has some actual experience. An amateur actor since the mid-1960s, he has performed in community theater productions throughout New Jersey, but also in New York. He also appeared as a movie extra in The Mirror Has Two Faces during Jeff Bridges' aborted speech.

"I'm at an age where there aren't many roles you can find," Mr. Hochman says.

He came out to audition for anything that might be available, including the roles of Pa Joad, the Rev. Jim Casey and Uncle John.

There are a few preliminaries to take care of, such as listing my contact information, experience (none) and my availability. My schedule makes impossible any rehearsal Tuesday, Wednesday or early Sunday afternoon, and my wife's schedule makes Thursday rehearsal impossible since one of us has to watch the baby.

Mr. Adase is friendly, and even though I'm sure he can tell I'm out of my element — this is a little more advanced than playing a Martian in second grade, you know — he immediately starts talking about the roles he can see me in.

First there's Connie, husband of Rosasharn Joad, who abandons his pregnant wife before the Joads even reach California. Then there's Al Joad, Tom's younger brother, a womanizer who loves to work with the insides of a car engine. Lastly, there's Floyd, one of the other migrant workers the Joads meet on their journey west.

Tonight, though, I'm not going to be any of those. Adase wants to get a feel for my ability, so he directs Hochman and myself toward Page 10 of the script, where the play begins.

As the opening scene, this exchange establishes the character of Tom Joad, freshly released on parole from jail where he has served four years for killing a man in a fight, and the Rev. Jim Casy, a revival preacher Tom knew when he was still a boy. It does more than that, though; it also sets the tone for the rest of the play as Tom starts to find his whole world uprooted because of the hard times the Dust Bowl has brought.

"I'd like you to read Tom, which is a role that's cast already, but it's a role that lets you read for a page or so," Mr. Adase tells me.

The Joads are from Oklahoma. In his novel, Steinbeck reflected their dialect with phonetic spellings like "Injun" and grammar an English teacher would flunk his students for. Galati maintains this with contractions like "hotter'n hell" and "goin'," but to speak the line properly, I have to use an accent. Stupid me, I forget, and Mr. Adase starts us over again after a moment.

As we get going again, I try to get the accent right. I (probably undeservedly) like to pride myself on doing respectable accents and voice imitations. The Oklahoma accent I'm imagining is slower than we speak in New Jersey, like in the South, but instead of a drawl, it has a twang.

"You seem to have a good cadence for this," Mr. Adase tells me after I've read a bit further. So apparently I'm doing all right at my Oklahoma accent, even though I've never been there. I make a mental note to thank my father, who grew up in Appalachia and thus can be said to have come from hillbilly territory.

Mr. Hochman and I do some more reading, then Mr. Adase has us skip to Page 55, where the Joads have arrived in Hooverville, one of the shanty towns that moves every few days as the dispossessed workers move about to avoid trouble with the law. Here Mr. Hochman reads Al and I read Floyd, and then we switch. Just for fun, I read Al's lines differently each time, in order to show that I can imagine different readings

"Okay, that's fine," Mr. Adase said after our third read.

Not long after comes the moment I hadn't been expecting. After Mr. Adase hears auditions from a few women hoping for parts in the play, and tells them he'll let them know in a few days if he has any speaking parts for them — there nearly always are roles without lines for crowd scenes, and The Grapes of Wrath has a few of those — he hands me a copy of the play.

"I'd like you take this home and look at the part of Floyd," he says. "I think you'd be good at Al, but I'm concerned about your schedule."

Without even knowing how it happened, suddenly I'm in.

Panic sets in about five seconds later. This is the real thing, and I don't mean Coca-Cola. This is an honest-to-goodness play. It has lines. Lots of them. When I was in second grade, I screwed up my big line and said, "And to think I was the cat who suggested we put the mouse on the bell!"

Mr. Hochman is reassuring on that score. "What I have found is you fill the time allotted to be off-book," he says. "If they tell you you have to be off-book the end of next week, you bust your ass and you get off-book."

I took Mr. Adase up on the role, took the book home, and started studying the role. Fate played me a foul turn, though, and I had to drop the play before rehearsals started because of several other large-level commitments that life sprang on me. But I know I can do this. My wife has played in Antigone: The Riot Act, and in Othello, and I want to take my turn at it.

There's an Academy Award waiting somewhere in my future, I can tell. I just need another break.

Friday, March 03, 2000

crackerjack toys

Got a good imagination for names? This is your chance to use it to win a shopping spree.

Crackerjacks, which sells toys aimed at stimulating children's imagination from its location in Belle Mead, N.J., is looking for a new name. If you come up with the winner, you could win a $500 shopping spree.

The quest for a new name comes after crackerjacks, the toy store, received a letter from Pepsico, which owns Frito Lay, which owns Cracker Jack, a brand of caramel-coated popcorn that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat it.

"They actually sent us a cease-and-desist," said Joanne Farrugia, who owns the chain, which also has stores in Skillman, N.J., and in Pennington, N.J.

I was a little surprised to hear the news myself. The store and the popcorn admittedly have similar names, but that's about where the similarity ends. The two target completely different markets, and the toy store is hardly so big that it poses a threat to a candy manufacturer.

If anything, Cracker Jack poses a bigger threat to the toy store because of it at least puts a free toy in every box. I've never received a single kernel of popcorn whenever I've visited the toy store.

"We don't think that there is an issue," said Ms. Farrugia. "The likelihood of winning a case is pretty good, but they're a multinational company. They're huge."

And that, as they say, is that. Pepsico, which employs 150,000 people and produces the entire line of Pepsi products and several other soft drinks to boot. Compared to a small operation like crackerjacks, its pockets are bottomless -- about $46 billion deep.

"I did agree to change it pretty quickly because it's just not that important," said Ms. Farrugia. "It's not even why we picked that name at all."

The name, in fact, came to Ms. Farrugia in mid-1996 from a thesaurus of all places, just before the store was due to open in Skillman.

"Crackerjack" is a synonym for "intelligent," and can refer to "a person or thing of marked excellence," according to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.

"We have since found out that there are several stores called 'Crackerjacks,'" said Ms. Farrugia. "It never even occurred to me, the caramel-coated candy."

By turning the name change into a contest, crackerjacks -- the company writes its current name without a capital C and as one word -- has converted what could have been a setback into a windfall of publicity. Ms. Farrugia told me stories of parents who have run into the store just to enter a suggestion.

The contest will run until April 1, and the store will pick a new name by April 15, 2000. Suggestions are being taken at all three stores, although Ms. Farrugia said they will not use as a name an existing word from the English language such as "Toy chest."

Extant store names such as "Toys 'R' Us" also would be a bad idea.

The address for mail-in suggestions is crackerjacks, 601 Route 206, Belle Mead, N.J. 08876. Of course, given the bulk of my readers live nowhere near Belle Mead, I don't know why I felt obliged to mention that, but there you are.

Now that I have a 4-month-old daughter, I'm tempted to enter something into the contest myself since she would like the toys. My best idea so far might have a little too much panache for the contest, though.

I want them to change their name to "So Sue Us."

Thursday, March 02, 2000

in the kitchen

I frequently claim to be a liberated man of the 1990s, even though it is now the 21st century. I think my work around the house will support my claim to be progressive.

I'm not saying that I do a lot of housecleaning. Actually, I think my mother-in-law did more housecleaning in the week she was here than I have done the entire seven months I've lived in this house.

But I do a fair share of the domestic chores. My father once observed that I run the house. I run the dishwasher, the washing machine, the clothes dryer, the lawnmower and the errands. I also run at the mouth, but that's a specialty of mine in a different field.

Lately, I've discovered that I also enjoy doing the cooking. Wherever I learned that trait, it wasn't from my father, who only helps in the kitchen at holiday time, until my mother finally chases him screaming from the kitchen with the electric carving knife, threatening to give him extensive plastic surgery if he ever comes near the roast again.

No wait, that's what my sister-in-law Tammy does to her husband. My father helps with meals by watching CNN on the television in the family room, then coming out at dinner time and proudly serving the meal as though he has been slaving over the kitchen stove for hours.

Anyway, I only recently have started to come into my own with cooked meals. At the beginning of our marriage, Natasha and I prepared fairly simple meals: baked chicken, tacos, pizza or some pork product; a canned vegetable like corn or peas; and some form of potato, usually french fries. Whenever the food became too routine, Natasha and I went out to eat.

We went out to eat a lot.

Toward the end of the summer, as Natasha's due date steadily approached, we were searching for ways to reduce our living expenses. One of the big ones was to eat out less, which meant someone would have to start preparing meals at home more frequently, which meant one of us would have to start learning some new ways to prepare meals so we wouldn't feel a need to go out as much.

One of the most useful gifts Natasha and I received at our wedding has turned out to be "The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook." For someone who nearly failed Home Economics back in middle school, the book has been a godsend. In its pages I found directions for carving poultry, how to identify slices and parts of meat and even how to slice bread.

Best of all, it has recipes, oodles and oodles of them. I haven't verified it by counting, but the cookbook claims to have more than 1,000 recipes. Slowly but surely, I'm working my way through them, but I have to admit my experiences cooking have been a little unpredictable at times.

This past Monday, I decided to try a new chicken dish and leafed through the cookbook, hoping something would catch my eye. As luck had it, my eyes fell upon a picture on Page 155 of a sumptuous chicken dish coated with a mushroom sauce.

"Country french chicken," I said thoughtfully. "Hm. Country french chicken..." My mouth started to water, and I made up mind. Without another word, I set myself to making dinner.

My troubles began as soon as I opened the package of chicken, which I had transferred to the refrigerator that morning. To say the chicken had not yet thawed would be an understatement. Even Frosty the Snowman would have found this cold.

Things just went downhill from there. The recipe said I had to pound the chicken breast to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch. I tried thawing it with hot water, and began pounding the chicken breast as hard as I could once I felt the cold meat start to warm.

I'm afraid I desecrated the chicken's remains so thoroughly that if the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ever learns of it, they'll want my head for such acts of unnatural barbarity.

The chicken now pounded thin -- mangled might be a better word -- I turned to the cookbook for the next step in the directions. It claimed I was suppose to coat my victim in a mixture of flour, salt and something I had never heard of before.

"Honey, what's a 'tarragon?'" I asked Natasha in the next room. It sounded to me like something from a cheap fantasy novel. (But look! Here comes mighty Tarragon, his bright sword gleaming in the morning light. Had he come to save the beauteous Paprika from the evil nutmeg horde?)

"It's a spice," she said, "but I don't think we have it."

We didn't. We also didn't have a shallot, a pound of assorted mushrooms or a quarter-cup of white dry wine. I decided to make some substitiutions, because we did have a third-pound of miniature Portabella mushrooms, a bell pepper and half an onion. On the bright side, I was able to muster the two tablespoons of olive oil. Natasha convinced me not to substitute orange juice for the white wine.

Whatever we had that night, it was good. But I'm sure it wasn't country french chicken.

Thursday, February 03, 2000

jane eyrehead

It probably is not politically correct to admit to this, but I like to read classic literature.

No, strike that. I like to read -- period. It's one of the few things my first-grade teacher did for me that I appreciate.

When I have a book in my hands, it's impossible to get my complete attention. Even as I express annoyance at being disturbed, half my mind is wondering about the book's deeper meanings and the other half is wondering what will happen next. Only the smallest portion handles the occasional nodding and grunting to convince whoever's speaking to me that they have my rapt attention.

I've loved literature ever since I learned to appreciate the differences between "Crime and Punishment" and "Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Disgusting Sneakers." My bookshelf is lined end-to-end with volumes with tongue-twister titles like "The Brothers Karamazov," "The Nibelungenlied" and "The Orkneyinga Saga." (Plus "Dr. Who and the Loch Ness Monster.")

Fortunately, I am married to someone who shares my bibliophilia. Although Natasha does not read as quickly as I do -- I once read Gaston Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera" in two evenings, something it would take her more than a week to finish -- she enjoys the chance to curl up with a good book and lose herself in another world for a while.

Shortly after we married, we made it our custom to read a book together each night before we go to sleep. Traditions like Thanksgiving dinner, family reunions and spilling a glass of milk on the Easter dinner are all very important, but we wanted to add our own tradition to the mix. So we threw out the television (how I wish that were literally true) as the locus of our family evenings, and replaced it with reading.

Since we married in 1998, Natasha and I have read more than a dozen books in this way, but as much as I enjoy recent books like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's "Good Omens," I can't deny my love of classic Western literature. We now are enjoying Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."

No, that's not quite right. Natasha is enjoying it. She's dragged me kicking and screaming through every page so far.

How on earth this book came to be regarded as a classic of Western literature, I don't know. Shakespeare's plays -- those are classics. The Bible -- that's a classic. "Le Morte d'Arthur" -- not especially well-written in parts or entirely original, but a classic nonetheless.

"Jane Eyre." I'm not even sure why this book is still in print.

I'll admit that "Jane Eyre" does fit the definition I had for classic literature back during high school: It's so boring I've fallen asleep reading it. The key distinction between "Jane Eyre" and other, great works of literature is that "Jane Eyre" hasn't required an English teacher to make it boring. It's had that effect all on its own.

"Jane Eyre" is a book that in the 80-plus pages we have read has gone absolutely nowhere. The author makes her point that life as a 12-year-old orphan girl in 19th-century England is awful and grim so well that I've taken to spicing up the writing with comments like, "Oh! Horror! Woe! Life stinks!"

"Jane Eyre" tells the story of a girl named, appropriately enough, Jane Eyre. The book begins at her aunt's house, called Goatshead or something similarly silly, where she has no friends and is routinely mistreated by her cousins and her aunt. (Woe, horror, alas!) Her mother, father and uncle all have died, apparently, because life is unfair. (Woe, horror, apocalypse.)

From there it just goes downhill. After 40 pages of cheap melodrama worse than anything I've seen on television, it looks like Jane's life is about to improve when she gets packed off to school. Unfortunately, the school she attends is run by someone named Broccoliburst who hates the world because he has such an ugly name, and he embarrasses her early in her stay at the school.

The only consolation Jane has is her friend, a little urchin named Helen Ragamuffin. During their first real conversation as friends, Helen starts waxing poetic about the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection, only to end her impassioned speech with a cough.

"Oh woe! Horror!" I cried, when Natasha read that part. "Helen Ragamuffin has tuberculosis and is going to die! Horror! She's Jane's only friend and she's about to die! Oh, alack the day!"

Natasha burst out laughing. I had predicted Helen's fate accurately at the first clue we were given of it.

Natasha read the book back in high school and insists it's good. If it's such a good book, I want to know, why do the deaths of half the girls at the school get a one-paragraph summary? "Oh, and by the way, during that summer, half the girls died from typhoid fever." Um, yeah. Sure. Albert Camus' "The Plague" chronicles the course of disease in a much more interesting manner.

My younger brother, Ward, read "Jane Eyre" back in college for an English literature class he took as a requirement for all prospective veterinary medicine students. I guess the thinking is, if you can survive reading boring books like these, you can survive the textbooks at vet school too.

Like Natasha, he insists the book is good, and said that when Jane gets her job as a governess -- the part we're about to start -- it really takes off as some sort of mystery.

Gee, I don't know. Isn't 85 pages a little long to introduce the plot? Give me Encyclopedia Brown any day. He not only reaches the mystery in the first two paragraphs, he solves it in five pages.

Now the English-speaking world is replete with intellectual achievement, if for no other reason than it includes so many people. In the United States alone, we have schools ranging from community colleges to state universities to Ivy League institutions. Moreover, there are at least thousands of talented, aspiring writers. With all this knowledge and talent available, it shouldn't be that hard to improve the book.

I've made a number of critiques so far, so I won't repeat them, but I will make one final comment: By the time Jane Eyre reaches her new school, most readers are desperate for some action.

I have found in my own creative writing that the best action sequences involve large tractor trailers, out-of-control school buses and crash-landing 747s. If Charlotte Bronte had thought to throw one of these at Jane's school, her book would have become a lot more interesting and would belong to a superior genre of literature.

Friday, January 28, 2000

an ill wind blows snow good

After trying for several hours, I am convinced there is nothing profound to say about the first major blizzard of the 21st century, and I should have stuck with what I had written before Old Man Winter struck, about Charlotte Bronte and her boring books.

When I began to write this, it was just past 2 a.m. Wednesday, and I was sitting at my desk in front of the computer. It is now nearing 10 a.m., and I'm still here. I was stranded at the office by a storm that dropped about 8 inches of snow in less than 24 hours.

All told, it hasn't been as bad as it sounds. The heat and the power worked all night, the phone and e-mail kept me in touch with the outside world, and my collection of cool toys -- including a three-eyed alien from "Toy Story 2," a talking "Batman Beyond" figurine and Cookie Monster -- have kept me occupied.

Old Man Winter and I have never gotten on especially well. We did reach a mutal understanding of a sorts for about two years: I moved to the tropics, and he never lowered the temperature below the 70s. When I returned to the United States, though, it was back to our old love-hate relationship.

When I was a child, there was a certain zing in the brisk winter air when the mercury dipped low, especially when there was snow. I loved to go tobogganing, and I shared with every other child the thrill of creating a snowman and waiting for it to burst into hideous life in a twisted version of "Frankenstein" meets "Winter Wonder Land."

But winter had a dark side too. It was wet, and that gave the cold temperatures a sinister gloss I never quite overcame. I still remember making a snow angel when I was 6 years old. The snow went down the back of my blue coat, where it became trapped and melted, leaving me shaking and shivering in the cold for however long it took me to risk my brothers' ridicule and go inside.

It's been about 23 years, and the world is still awaiting my second snow angel.

Then there were the snowball fights. Everyone loves snowball fights, it's true, and I suppose I've thrown my share of those missiles too. But with three brothers, it wasn't hard to discover that snowballs also could be unpleasant when they hit me.

In the political alliances of the four Learn boys, two parties usually surfaced: Herbert and Ward, and Brian and me. Free-for-all snowball fights were the exception. In these as with nothing else, I tried to assert a neutrality that would keep me safe from all harm, and billed myself as the "snow fort repairman."

I thought it was a good arrangement. I got to enjoy seeing all three of my brothers get pounded with snow balls at one point or another, while I stayed safe from aggression (so I thought) because, after all, you need a fort to protect yourself from the snowballs.

Herb's fort especially took a beating, not because the snowballs were made of ice -- although that was known to happen - but because he used to stand on top of it and sing "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner" and try to provoke Brian into hitting him.

The taunting invariably angered Brian -- we all were good at provoking him -- and he would step out from behind his protective wall, straight into one of Brian's piledrivers.

The combined toll of Brian's high-powered vengeance and Bill's own impromptu song-and-dance routines took their toll on his forts. They usually began the day as 4 feet high and ended as 2-foot walls of solid ice. I kept myself busy packing more and more snow on top of them, and screaming loudly whenever a snowball came too close.

As I recall, my neutral repairman strategy worked exactly once. The second time I tried it, I became the universally accepted target, and was sent screaming back inside, followed by a steady barrage of snowballs.

(Don't feel too bad for me. I eventually came out on top, since I landed a job at a newspaper that lets me make fun of them in print whenever I want.)

More than 20 years have passed since my job as a snow-fort repairman, and things have not changed much for me as far as the snow goes. I still enjoy the nip of the cold air, I still enjoy building snowmen and throwing snowballs, and I still hate being hit with them.

After sleeping at my desk Tuesday night - a novel experience in that I wasn't supposed to be working this time - I stepped outside to warm up the car and go find some breakfast. For the fourth time in two days, I retrieved my ice scraper and set to clearing the windows, keeping my hands well inside my sleeves.

One of the men who was clearing the parking lot of our office complex saw me scraping away and came to offer his assistance. Apparently, I still cut a pathetic figure in the snowy weather.