Seen on the Boardwalk

The shops along the boardwalk yawn and stretch, blinking winter-weary eyes at the gradually strengthening sun, raising their metal security doors to welcome another summer onslaught of tourists.  Tables stand ready and waiting at the outdoor cafes with rookie servers anxious for their first customers. Souvenir shops hawk their wares with signs advertising pre-season sales on t-shirts, boogie boards, and caged hermit crabs which will not survive the return trip across the Bay Bridge. There is that top of the roller coaster sense of anticipation, of here-we-go-again—like the optimism of teachers at the beginning of the school year.

What marred this late-spring saunter down the boardwalk for me was seeing those ubiquitous t-shirts with sexually suggestive slogans. I suppose they’re meant to appeal to the high school seniors who will flood the town in the next few weeks, flaunting their pseudo-adulthood by excessive drinking and other forms of debauchery. Tacky t-shirt shops are as much a part of this resort as sunburn and crab cakes, but I found this season’s crop more offensive than usual, and I don’t think it’s because I’m turning into a prudish curmudgeon. Displayed on racks right out on the boardwalk for all to see were shirts with utterly revolting and disgusting words, far worse than the typical “I’m with stupid” underscored by a pointing finger. And, to a one, they were demeaning to women.

I realize that simply talking about them is the whole point. Get attention at all costs. Shock value makes for great publicity and a healthy bottom line for the purveyor of the goods. Who cares if something is not just in poor taste, but is absolute filth or that young children walking the boardwalk with their parents say, “What does that shirt mean, Mommy?” It’s a free country, if you don’t like something displayed in a shop, you can walk by and ignore it. But when it’s placed right in the path of our boardwalk bicycle, taunting us, saying look at what I can get away with printing and selling in my store and you can’t do a thing about it, I am offended. On one hand, we’re preaching kindness and respect for all, and on the other hand, let’s see how far we can go with a sexually explicit t-shirt that values women for nothing more than their body parts. Even if it’s meant as a joke, it’s not a joke. Not anymore.

Oh, come on, they’re just a bunch of cheap shirts in junky stores—they’ll always be there in one form or another, and I suppose no one is harmed by wearing one. But why would someone choose to wear a shirt that makes most of us cringe or turn away in embarrassment? Offensive clothing and bumper stickers are like canker sores growing on our newly formed skin of political correctness—minor annoyances, but their very presence makes me question how deep and resilient that skin actually is. Are the current conversations about sexual harassment and gender equality just lip service? If not, then why are we still selling and buying clothing that makes references to gynecological procedures or are motivated to buy a vehicle from a local car dealer who advertises “Buy a Jeep and get babes?”

I understand the idiotic eighteen-year-old’s need to go over the top and defy his parents, but it’s not just high school graduates gone wild that are buying into this. Sadly, there is still an element who says forget political correctness, this is what I want to wear or paste on my car bumper and just you try and stop me. So, in the name of equality, there should be shirts and bumper stickers with sayings just as offensive to men, but I didn’t see them. Maybe they keep those in the back of the store.

Thoughts at Sixty-Two

What I miss:

  • My parents.
  • Newspapers—yes, I get news faster on my phone but there is nothing like the crinkly Sunday-morning-ness of a big, fat hard-copy newspaper. I know they’re still around but for how long?
  • Weddings held in a house of worship instead of a “venue.”
  • The sublime innocence of schools before mass shootings.
  • Summers working at the Strasburg Railroad.
  • Orioles games with Brian and his mom wearing her bucket hat and baseball sneakers—a die-hard fan if ever there was one.
  • The huge magnolia tree (it’s still there, I checked) in my childhood backyard.
  • A President I can respect, even if I don’t agree with his or her politics.
  • My friend Deb, especially her irreverent sense of humor.
  • The town where I grew up, the way it was when I lived there.
  • My grandmother’s almond cake with bitter chocolate drizzle.

What I love now:

  • Retirement.
  • Writing and occasionally getting a piece published.
  • Technology, even though most days I don’t even know what I don’t know. I love being able to connect with old friends, Google everything, and make calls from my car.
  • Farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Don’t want my fresh fruits and vegetables dropped off by an Amazon drone. Ever.
  • Netflix and Hulu.
  • Singing with the Susquehanna Chorale.
  • SNL skits especially with Keenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon.
  • Wegman’s.
  • Small businesses and personal service. Several times in the last week I had great experiences dealing with real people who were knowledgeable, professional, and kind.
  • Ocean Pines.
  • That we are living in the age of medical miracles. I think about the way my grandfather practiced medicine and how amazed he’d be if he were alive today.
  • The quality and safety of the cars we drive. Anyone miss the vehicles of the 70’s and 80’s?
  • Diversity and acceptance.
  • My pain-free, less crooked back.

What I’m still learning:

  • To be a better singer and a better writer and the realization that I’m not done yet.
  • To grow a productive vegetable garden.
  • That I need an app on my phone to remind me to get out and walk.
  • How to do promotional writing and market a non-profit arts organization in the digital age.
  • To be less violent with my electric toothbrush. My dentist tells me to just let it do its thing and not try to control it. Life lesson, perhaps?
  • That sometimes you have to push back against the prevailing winds and fight for what you believe even when it’s not pretty. That nodding in polite agreement when inside you’re screaming “No, this is just wrong,” is not always the best option.
  • That no matter how much I walk and exercise or try to control my portions, I no longer have the metabolism of a thirty-year-old or even a forty-year-old. Sigh…
  • That the Holy Spirit is leading me somewhere. Thank you, Deacon Jan, for the reminder.
  • To appreciate everyone I meet along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

Beginnings and Endings

This is the season of beginnings and endings. The season of graduations and retirements, bridal showers and weddings. Nature begins her return to green-ness, tantalizing us with samples of the summer to come. On the first 75-degree day, we resurrect our shorts and flip-flops, poke around in the garden, wake up the lawn mower and hose down the outdoor furniture. We expose our winter-white skin to the warmth of the sun and happily go without socks for the first time in months. Perhaps because I was born in the spring, this is a beginning I welcome with open arms.

These months also bring beginnings and endings for those involved in the great lumbering behemoth of education. Tonight I will attend the last orchestra concert directed by a long-time colleague before he retires. I know what those last few weeks of being employed in a school feel like—the last program, the last parent email, (mercifully) the last faculty meeting or in-service day— full-blown elation tempered with the anxiety of “What happens next and will I have enough money to live on?” In the midst of the accolades and speeches, lurks the realization that what has been a huge part of your life is ending forever. Turn in your laptop and ID card and from now on, you sign in as a guest in a place where you ground it out for thirty-plus years.

This is the season for parents to swallow hard and put up a good front as they realize their time caring for a child 24/7 is ending. Seeing that child off to prom dressed like a grown-up in a formal gown or tux. Watching him or her walk across the stage at graduation or marry the person they love most in the world. Celebrating the long-awaited college acceptance or job offer. Glorious times and wonderful beginnings, but they come with the price tag of no longer seeing that child’s face at the breakfast table.

I think beginnings and endings are even harder when they’re not controlled by life events—by meeting graduation requirements or reaching retirement age. When we have to wrestle ourselves with questions about when it’s time to begin something new in our lives or end something that no longer serves a purpose for us. It can be as simple as deciding to give up or join an activity or organization or as difficult as moving a loved one into a care facility. The answers are seldom clear-cut, and my experience is, in the end, you pray about it and go with your gut.

In the drum corps organizations that are strictly for young people, there is an upper age limit of twenty-one. When a member marches off the field for the last time, he or she leaves their marching shoes behind on the field. The drums and horns have quieted, the props and scenery are gone, but the stadium lights are still on, shining down on the pairs of shoes lying discarded on the field. Those young musicians are off to jobs and lives and possibly marching with a senior corps, but their days in this particular organization have come to an end. And so it is with beginnings and endings. We all leave our shoes behind on the field somewhere, our legacy of where we’ve been and the lives we’ve touched.

 

A Tribute to the Holy Trinity

I saw in the paper this morning that the last surviving member of the holy trinity passed away. Granted, an odd statement for the beginning of Holy Week, but in this case I’m referring to three teachers I knew in the beginning of my career who were collectively (and fondly) known as the holy trinity.

These ladies taught classroom music and directed elementary choirs in five different buildings and were absolute pillars of the school district. They wore suits, dresses, and heels and were never seen without lipstick and perfectly coiffed hair. Their classrooms resounded with children’s voices, real acoustic pianos expertly played, click-clacking rhythm instruments and little feet dancing and moving. As a young and woefully inexperienced teacher, I was in absolute awe of them and learned so much from their professionalism and the way they nurtured the joy of music in youngsters. Toward the end of their careers, much to their chagrin, they also had to teach instrumental music when the gentleman responsible for the elementary band program fell asleep in one too many lessons. And yet, they took it in stride, digging out long-unused instruments from their college days and making a success of the band as well.

Every spring, they would combine all of the young singers into an annual extravaganza called the Elementary Music Festival. For a week each April, instruction in the elementary schools would literally grind to a halt, because half the students were being bussed to the high school each day to practice for the festival. No one messed with the Music Festival. There were no field trips scheduled and the high school musical stopped rehearsals so the kids could have the stage for their production. And what a production it was– scenery and costumes, choreography and soloists, all culminating in a grand finale of several hundred nine- and ten-year-old’s stacked on risers singing their hearts out. I suspect if you would ask many former students what they remember most about their elementary years, the music festival would be near the top of the list.

Those days, sadly, are long gone. The idea of taking several afternoons away from our now “rigorous” classrooms and standardized test preparation to sing together with others would simply not be permitted. Administrators and teachers would be aghast. Oh, the test scores, the ranking of the school, the IEP’s and the benchmarks—how could we possibly even entertain such an idea? The fact that today’s music educators still manage to pull off excellent performances is nothing short of miraculous, when they are thwarted at every turn.

The holy trinity ladies taught in a kinder, gentler public school, one I remember from the first half of my career. Before technology, before the insidious standardized testing and before the horrors of school shootings. When we were allowed to call programs in December Christmas concerts without worrying about lawsuits. (Don’t get me wrong—I believe there are many positives about political correctness, but really, I don’t think anyone is going to be damaged for life because they sang a Christmas carol when they were in fifth grade.) The last few years I taught, winter concert programs literally had to be submitted to the superintendent for approval to make sure that selections did not reflect any kind of religious bias.

These were the days when people seemed less angry and more forgiving. When we didn’t react with such vehemence to the slightest mistake or perceived offense. When the doors to learning were always open, and we didn’t have to worry about scanning ourselves into a building and being fingerprinted in the office. When instead of logging onto a substitute teacher website, you called your principal at home when you were sick and if that didn’t make you think twice about faking it, nothing would. And as much as technology has expanded our world and provided opportunities beyond anything dreamed of in the days of the holy trinity ladies, I think somewhere we’ve lost a piece of our humanity. Of saying the hell with the rules and the protocols in the human resources manual, this is what needs to be done right now from the standpoint of love and common sense.

I will never forget the day one of the holy trinity ladies’ husbands died very suddenly and she was told the news in the school office by her adult daughter and her pastor. It happened to be music festival week, and everyone pitched in, covering rehearsals for her and taking on all of her responsibilities so that the show could go on as scheduled. That school district bore her up and came together like a family caring for one of its own. Based on what I hear from colleagues who are still teaching, I’m not so sure that would happen anymore.

So, rest in peace, dear holy trinity ladies. The world in which you taught has changed dramatically, but we will always need children singing and teachers like you to lead them. I am sure there are young angels in heaven just waiting for you to say, “Good morning boys and girls. Let’s start with “My Country Tis’ of Thee.”

 

 

 

Backyard Spring

I turn the top of the concrete birdbath over to face the sky and fill it with a milk jug’s worth of water. Within minutes, a goldfinch arrives along with several of his wren buddies. They perch on the rim, taking furtive sips and cocking their heads at me as if to say, “It’s about time, sister.”

I remove the empty suet feeders, greasy with residue from the nut-encrusted fat cakes meant to entice woodpeckers and chickadees. The squirrels will now have to give up their pole-dancing and content themselves with cast-off seeds under the birdfeeders, listening for the slam of the back door which means a white dog is on its way, intent on their destruction.

The bluebird boxes have been swept clean of the remains of last year’s nests and are ready for new tenants. I don’t remember seeing bluebirds in February before, but they were here. I assumed they traveled to warmer climates over the winter but maybe not so much anymore. I’ve heard the distinctive call of the red-winged blackbird (we name them all Freddie) and the peepers are back in the little stream that flows behind the grove of trees at the foot of the yard. The finches, having shed their drab winter grays and browns, cluster in yellow pops of color around the thistle seed feeder, the upscale restaurant of birdseed offerings.

Goldfinch with seeds (2)

 

I will look for the cardinals to build their nest in the flimsy branches of a rhododendron bush outside our dining room window. There have been tragedies over the years, yet they insist on returning to that same spot. Another bird, perhaps a mockingbird, frequently constructs its nursery high up under the eaves of the house, where it is warmed by resting on the spotlight that illuminates the backyard.

The lawn is just starting to show light green, and here and there, patches of yard garlic poke out like shocks of unruly hair. I remember spending time with my grandfather in his backyard garden where we would pull spikes of that wild garlic and eat it, coming back into my grandmother’s kitchen with pungent breaths and cheeks ruddy from early spring’s cool breezes.

I planted cold-weather vegetables yesterday—broccoli, cabbages, and kale. The garden has already been tilled and bathed in a few bags of organic fertilizer, and each thrust of the trowel brought forth fat worms, happily burrowing through the compost of last year’s harvest. When I came in, I noticed a small itchy bump on my wrist, so some biting insect is awake and hungry. The chicken-wire fencing will need to be erected soon to prevent rabbits from making a salad of what I’ve planted.

winter garden (2)

The dogs share the porch with me, noses quivering with scents carried on this first breath of warm air. Winter brought miserable bathroom visits in cold rain, when they had to find a spot on frozen mud and leave trickles of yellow against jagged shards of old snow. I hook Stella’s leash around a chair leg because otherwise she will run like the wind, squeezing her chubby body under the neighbor’s fence and peering down dangerous groundhog holes in pursuit of her prey. Vinnie dozes on my lap while Stella remains vigilant, cooing and whining as she scans the yard for chipmunks and squirrels. I suspect this may be Vinnie’s last spring. His broken liver, which a brilliant veterinary specialist has kept going for the last three years, is showing signs of exhaustion. He still chases the occasional squirrel on his good days, the days when steroids trick his body into thinking he is young and healthy and that he still has many springs ahead of him.
I wait anxiously for my hummingbirds to return, following the tiny colored dots on the online migration map. When I see them populate into Maryland, I will boil sugar and water down into simple syrup (never the red pre-mixed stuff) and hang my feeders where I can see them from the kitchen window. Sometimes it takes weeks of cleaning and refilling the feeders until my first hummer arrives, usually a female. She tentatively buzzes around the nectar holes at dusk, when the other birds are starting to settle into the trees in the fencerow, gradually quieting as another day filled with nature’s renewal of life comes to a close.

hummingbird professional

 

St. Patrick’s Day on the Square

If you’re not stirred by the sound of a drum cadence bouncing off city buildings or watching forty horns simultaneously burst into glorious sound, you’re not quite alive. Today I watched the Lancers Drum and Bugle Corps play a concert before the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown York. The corps (never call it a band—oops, learned that early on) is stunningly good. They are clean, precise, incredibly musical and smash the stereotype of drum and bugle corps as a bunch of old guys honking horns, pounding on drums and drinking a lot of beer.

The corps members are from all walks of life—some professionally trained musicians and some not, but they come together to create well-executed performances played to the absolute best of their ability. For the Lancers, it’s all about the music and the music is serious business as is their dedication to each other. Their theme, emblazoned on their jackets, is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and I’ve seen corps members live that theme many times over. I don’t just say these things because I’m married to one of their leaders and to be perfectly honest, I’m not a big drum corps fan. But I am a huge fan of music lifting people up out of the muck, even if it’s for just a few moments.

And lift them they did today. Wow. People were smiling and laughing. People were joyful. When’s the last time you stood in a crowd of people who were joyful? Everyone cheered and clapped, and the little kids waved and danced to the drumbeat. It was a glorious March day, cold and windy compared to the brief taste of spring we had earlier this week, but no one cared. People bundled up and wore their green scarves and shamrock sunglasses as they hurried up the street towards the sound of the music. There was energy and anticipation of something wonderful happening that they didn’t want to miss. How often do we find ourselves, especially these days, filled with excitement and running toward something wonderful?

Sometimes you need to see vendors creating balloon animals for kids who are wearing leprechaun hats. Sometimes you need to smell Bricker’s French fries and watch news anchors from local TV stations handing out promotional materials and spinning prize wheels. You need to see a man getting out of the car parked next to you who’s wearing a kilt and adjusting a set of bag pipes over his shoulder. Elderly ladies in wheelchairs sporting green tinsel necklaces clapping along with the music. A little girl hoisted up on her dad’s shoulders so she could watch mommy playing her horn. A teenaged boy with an instrument case on his back (my guess is a trumpet) staring spellbound at the corps. (Yes, you can play that trumpet even after high school.) A former teaching colleague who has struggled with serious health issues absolutely beaming between tunes as he performs for the first time with the Lancers.

Parades are small-town throw-backs to another era. They’re more Norman Rockwell and Andy of Mayberry than they are hipster cool. But they draw all of us in and make us feel good regardless of our political persuasion or the color of our hair. They make us look up from our screens long enough to enjoy the dancers and the bands and the floats and talk to the people standing next to us on the sidewalk. So here’s an Irish toast to those who make it all happen—the planners and the fire police, the musicians and the majorettes, the float-builders and the bagpipe-players, the ones who scrounge for the funding every year and the ones who sweep the streets after it’s all over. Because now more than ever, we need to gather in our town squares accompanied by the sounds of blazing brass and thundering percussion and celebrate something wonderful. Together.

My Phone and Me

My phone has become like an extra appendage, and I don’t go anywhere without it, even around the house. I use it constantly and should probably be in some kind of twelve-step program for addiction to Scrabble and Solitaire. I respond like Pavlov’s dog to notification alerts from the local TV station or my weather apps. If I have to wait somewhere or I’m a passenger in the car, I check email, scroll through Facebook or try to up my Scrabble game.

I deposit a check through my banking app and think about how far we’ve come from handing checks to the bespectacled lady behind the window at our local bank who knew us by our first name. I google the done temperature for what I’m cooking (often from a recipe found on the phone), instead of consulting a well-worn cookbook lying on the counter. My phone has become an integral part of almost every aspect of my life and that’s coming from a somewhat tech-phobic dinosaur who probably only uses a tiny percentage of her phone’s capacity.

My parents told me that one day they discovered me chattering away on the phone (one of those big old black behemoths with a dial that made that lovely whirring sound) when I was barely three. My mother assumed I was just talking to myself until she realized I had correctly dialed the number for my grandmother and was happily conversing with her. Now three-year-old’s are downloading their own games in between google searches.

Both my parents and grandparents worked from offices in their homes, so phones rang constantly. My grandfather was a small-town doctor whose patients called at all hours of the day and night and most of the time he or my grandmother answered. There were no answering machines or annoying automated gates to prevent you from reaching the help you needed. My father sold insurance and it was years until he finally had a separate phone line installed to stop dinnertime calls from clients who just wrecked their car. His first answering machine for the office came with a tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder inside.

As a teenager, the phone was a source of recreation and romance. We would gather at slumber parties and make prank calls to unsuspecting businesses. “Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can? Yes? Well, then let him out.” We’d call nerdy guys we didn’t like, enticing them with lascivious invitations to meet us somewhere and then slamming the phone down and erupting into gales of laughter. Cruel, yes, but, come on, we were fourteen. We would sit by the phone for hours hoping the guy we did like would finally call, and in those days before caller ID, it was a mystery (and usually a disappointment) to discover who was on the other end of the line. We would make furtive calls to our best friend when some soppy song came on the local radio station’s late-night broadcast. (“Oh my God, do you hear what they’re playing on “Rendezvous” right now? It just reminds me so much of last summer…”)

On a girlfriends’ trip to the Outer Banks in the early 90’s, one of us had a CELL PHONE! Wow! If we connected its tightly coiled cord to the cigarette lighter, we could actually make calls from the car in case there was an EMERGENCY, because why else would you need it? The phone came housed in its own rectangular box and we treated it with great reverence, as though we were transporting the Holy Grail.

Cell phones grew smaller and flatter. Then they flipped open and took pictures like a camera and suddenly we started doing this thing called texting. I remember a younger teaching colleague hesitantly asking me, “Do you text?” as though it was a skill reserved for those under thirty. When smart phones first came out, most of us in my generation shook our heads in amazement. Why would we need one of those? We’re too busy to be watching movies or playing games on our phones. What will they think of next?

Now here we are with phones that are like umbilical cords connecting us to the world. We text and face time, we stream our Hulu movies, and research our latest health worries on Web MD. We scan ourselves into the gym or the movie theater. We commiserate instantly with friends when there is pain and loss and celebrate their joys and accomplishments. Like it or not, our phones, despite the idiotic behavior of some of the humans using them, have completely revolutionized our culture.

Today on my writers’ Facebook group I learned about another publication looking for personal essays from older writers. I listened to several arrangements of choral pieces we’re working on for this spring’s concert. I found a cartoon that made me laugh out loud and wished some Facebook friends a Happy Birthday. I checked to see if I could substitute asparagus for green beans in the recipe I’m making for dinner. My life is infinitely bigger and better because of how easily I can access information and connect with other people, despite the amount of time I waste trying to remember words that use Q without a U.

smart phone (2)