Heading out to buy candy for Easter always ends the same way.  After I pick up the jelly beans and Peeps I know that chocolate is next and that’s where it can get a little difficult.  Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate with nuts and fruits?  As I stand there with a blank look on my face it’s good to see an acquaintance and know that I’m not the only one buying candy.

“Hi, Happy Easter”, I call out.  “Here to get that Easter candy? Doesn’t it seem like there are more choices every year?  I love the little foil wrapped…”

“I love chocolate too but it has to be good chocolate, no American chocolate for me”.

“Really, why is that?”

“I spoke with a chocolatier at Maison du Chocolat on Madison Avenue the last time that Michael and I were in New York and he told us what to look for in fine chocolate. Ah, chocolate liquor, cacao, ah, Fair Trade and organic, ah, Madagascar, flavor notes, ah, tempering, fermentation, ah, tropical soil, ah…”

“Gee, it sounds like you and Michael are real chocolate lovers.”

“Chocolate aficionado, a real chocolate lover is a chocolate aficionado.”

“Then what are you doing buying chocolate bunnies?”

“I like the ears.  The ears are the best.”


Watching all the trains go by

In the mid-fifties there was a popular song which seemed to be on the radio all the time: “Standing on the corner” with the lyrics, “Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by.”  I’m pretty sure that in 2013 if you’re “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by” there’s a good chance that we’ll see you on the local evening news getting into the back of a Ford Crown Victoria.  I like to watch trains and although, following 9/11, there were some homeland security directives about watching trains and taking pictures of railroad operations, train watchers are usually considered by the authorities to be harmless and/or nuts.  A few years ago, on a bright Saturday afternoon while I was train watching, a pickup truck passed by and the passenger yelled out, “get a life, they’re just trains” so I guess that answered any question I had about how train watchers are viewed by the general public—they’re nuts.

I could tell you that I like to watch trains because I have been involved with the railroad industry and like to stay current on the latest equipment and operation methods.  I could tell you that the motion of the trains passing by gives me an opportunity to improve my action shot camera skills or I could tell you that I enjoy the camaraderie of other train watchers (some of those guys really are nuts).  That’s what I could tell you.

So what is it that creates my interest in watching trains pass by?  To me it’s what the railroads represent.  Drive across railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere and you know those rails connect to other lines somewhere and go everywhere.  The old depot which has not seen a passenger train stop in decades still looks down the same tracks toward Omaha, Cheyenne and San Francisco.  The tracks still head east to South Bend, Cleveland, Buffalo and New York City.  They still head south to Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Miami. Those tracks may now only see two or three local freights a week with loads of lumber or plastic pellets but the loads come from somewhere far away and may have moved over the same routes once used by the Twentieth Century Limited, The Sunset Limited or The Champion.  Those tracks or connections remember when silver Rockets and Zephyrs and Chiefs and yellow Cities flew by.  Those tracks remember Hudsons and Berkshires and E-8s and Pullmans and domes and round end observation cars.  And now giant diesels pull mile long strings of containers or hoppers or tank cars or auto racks and change the commerce of the country once again and those tracks will remember that too.

Years ago small town folks would head to the depot to meet the evening train which connected the town with everywhere and made the town someplace. That train was taken off in the early fifties but everywhere is still at the end of those tracks and everywhere includes far off places and people and products and memories and yesterday just like it did then.

Stare down the tracks and your destination is there.  Stare down the tracks and the people you know or knew or will know are down the line.  Stare down the tracks and wait for the sound of the horn or whistle and watch for the headlight growing larger.  It’s all there just down the tracks. It’s all there if you watch.

Who’s thirsty?

I remember from health class it was recommended that you drink eight glasses of water a day.  Eight glasses?  Why that’s 8 times 8 ounces, 64 ounces, half a gallon.  Who has that kind of time? I work you know.

Let’s get past the debate on water vs. liquid and just say liquid: 64 ounces of liquid per day. When Coca-Cola came in a six ounce bottle that would have sounded like an awful lot.  Who could possibly drink over 10 bottles of Coke?  Now, we come out of the gas station convenience store or Dunkin’ Donuts with a quart of coffee in a logo thermos mug that’s larger than my grandmother’s percolator.  Have you ever asked yourself, as you stand in front of the convenience store beverage fountain filling up a giant cup, “Do we live in thirsty times? Was Mom this thirsty?”

Then thinking about it, it probably doesn’t really have much to do with thirst.  I think it’s more about arithmetic.  The cost of soft drinks is outrageous and “I’m not paying $1.49 for a 22 ounce cup of Diet Coke.  How dumb do they think I am?  $1.49 for 22 ounces of carbonated water? That’s nuts, I’m not doing it.”

“What? What’s that sign say? “$1.59 for a 64 ounce Monster Quencher?”  Why, that’s almost three times as much for a dime more—that’s more like it, that’s like saving $3.00.”

So I head on out with a 64 ounce Monster Quencher that kind of fits/balances in the cup holder.  Off I go with my day’s recommended 64 ounces in one convenient giant cup.  Good health and saving $3.00 is not only pretty refreshing it’s also pretty smart except now I’m driving 50 mph in a 30 mph zone because my bladder is screaming and ready to explode.  Now as I sip from my money saving 64 ounce cup of ice cold refreshment I see flashing red reflected off the lid of my Monster Quencher Diet Coke.

I wonder if the officer will let me drive into the Gas-N-Stuff station up ahead so I can use the facilities while he’s doing his/my/our paperwork?  I wonder if this ticket is going to cost me more than $3.00?

This is where we came in

Going to the movies always seems to be the default answer to the question, “what do you want to do?” and while movies might not always be worth the price of admission they are always there.  You can debate the quality of the individual films you see but not the improvements to the motion pictures and the way we see them.  Eighty five years ago sound was added and the changes to the movies have never stopped—color, wide screen, digital projection, 3-D, Dolby sound and cup holders.

All big changes but probably the biggest change has been with the movie patrons themselves.  Now we scour the internet for movie listings, synopses, casts, reviews and show times and then drive to multiscreen facilities showing 10-15 movies where we may pay around $20 for two tickets (plus a surcharge if it is a 3-D feature) and another $20 for popcorn and drinks. Moviegoers used to just go see whatever happened to be playing at the local theater that week.

“What’s at the Mercury?”

“Some western and another movie, I can’t remember.”

Out the door and off to the movies because you didn’t have to check the time and maybe you didn’t even care what was playing.

“Two please” and in you would go.  Give the ticket taker your ticket, step up to the refreshment stand for two boxes of popcorn (Absolutely no gum or drinks allowed in the theater—the mgmt.) and walk into the dark theater.

The second feature on the screen? Maybe.  A cartoon on the screen? Maybe.  A newsreel on the screen? Maybe.  Coming attractions on the screen? Maybe.  The main feature in progress on the screen? Maybe.

“Look out Bob, behind you” the leading lady screamed as the hero was about to be jumped by the bad guys.  Oh, the main feature is playing and into the 10th row you would creep, “excuse me, sorry, excuse me”.

The movie plays on and you may or may not be able to figure out what is happening on the screen, then the second feature, the newsreel, the cartoon, the coming attractions before the main feature comes on again.  You would sit there watching and watching until, “Look out Bob, behind you”.  With that you would turn to each other and say, “I think this is where we came in” and get up.  “Excuse me, sorry, excuse me” and you’re out the door and the story in the movie all made sense.

You had a pretty good idea when the last feature at the theater would start, you knew you had time to see everything and so you would just go to the show and jump into the movie at any point watching until the story came around again. Netflix and cable channels make a big deal about movies on demand like it’s something new.  See movies when you want to see them.  Now they do it with their TV, then they did it at the local theater.   It made it pretty easy to decide the answer to the question, “what do you want to do?”—-wait, I think this is where we came in.

A lesson

There were always the kids in school who would outperform or try to outperform the rest of the class. If the lesson was about insects and Sister told the class to bring in two pictures of North American bugs everyone would bring in the two except the overachievers who would bring in museum-quality scrapbooks or perhaps a slide show.

“Thank you, Sarah, once again you have done excellent work and shown your classmates what it means to be a scholar” and Sarah would sit there beaming and ignore the tongues that were stuck out in her direction.

No one would dare admit it but even as we might have made fun of Sarah for her “accomplishments” we all wanted to hear that praise and receive our own pat on the head.  It was just difficult to see your opening so when you did it was up to you to take it.

Even though we had a lot to cover in some subjects we were usually given the opportunity to expand on what was being taught.  An example was when we were learning about the Civil War and we not only read about the various battles and generals we also listened to songs of the period like, “When Johnny comes marching home”.  Now I didn’t know all the words to “Johnny” but the melody was familiar from another song so naturally before we moved on, after seeing Sarah’s self-serving display, I asked Sister if she would like to hear the words that I knew to the same melody.

Sister smiled and said that would be nice and, “Why don’t you sing it for the class?” And so I did.

“When Howdy goes to the store today, hurray, hurray, he’s going to buy some Tootsie Rolls, hurray…” and the second hurray got stuck in my throat when she screamed, “Stop”.

I think this example perfectly illustrates one of the weaknesses of the American education system.  We are too hung up on highlighting what our students don’t know rather than what they do know.

“Four score and seven years ago we hold these truths to be self-evident” has been memorized by American students for almost 150 years but I doubt if there are more than two dozen people in the nation who know the entire Gettysburg Address but ask students from the 1950s to finish:

“Oh, I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener” or “I love Bosco that’s the drink for me” or “See the USA in your Chevrolet” and watch the enthusiasm and those bright faces light up after all of these years because that information was captured for all time and they are eager to show you just what they do know.  “Take that, Sarah”.

You have to wonder, where are the jingles that can thrill a new generation?  Where are the new jingle writers who can lead the nation forward with little ditties which can be used to teach kids about math and history and science and geography and avoiding STDs?

The nation waits.

Writing to Buster

Who knows what it is that triggers a thought about someone? If that something is not money that you borrowed and if that person is special that thought may very well produce warm feelings and you may think about writing or calling.  I can remember when I was eight and looked at the watch my grandparents had sent me for my last birthday and thinking that I should write them a nice letter about what I was doing, how school was going and what books I was reading.  I sat down and wrote, “How are you, I am fine” and then sat there and sat there and sat there before I told them, “I have fun with my friends, school is good and I am reading The Hardy Boys.”  They must have loved hearing from me.

When you’re writing a paper or writing to someone you probably go through that same kind of “where do I start?” moment.  It can take time to turn those thoughts and warm feelings into words. When people used to bring out a piece of stationery and begin to compose they might write, walk away, think about the person, come back and write some more, go to the corner to mail the letter and wait days or weeks for a reply.  That was the way love letters would have been written during war time.  The letter writing process was mixed with long thoughts over long periods of time about the loved one and how it was going to be after the fighting ended.  The process of writing letters helped develop deep thoughts and deep emotions on both ends of the correspondence. Now the process is much faster and that faster pace might not allow time to fully develop the important thoughts and feelings.

Anyway, thinking about writing letters made me want to set aside some time and write a post about how much I enjoy the writing process.  The tools have changed, we don’t use stationery and pens much anymore, but it’s still about composing thoughts.

I pretty much knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it so it was just a matter of turning on the computer and typing in the incorrect password.  Incorrect password? How can it be an incorrect password? The password is “password” right there on the screen in front of me. The laziest and most insecure password of all-time so I can’t forget it password, “password”.  No problem, that’s why I entered most of the passwords in password keeper on my cell phone.

Click, click, click, password keeper.  Invalid password?  Wait, this should be “password” too.  Let me try password 1, password2, password3 and I am in, whew.  Now to see what my computer password is, click, click, Rosebud?  No wonder I couldn’t remember it.  Rosebud?  I wonder what movie was on TV that night.

Password?  Rosebud.  You know as long as I am doing this I should make a list of all my passwords—Yahoo mail, bank accounts, Barnes and Noble and all the travel/hotel room/rental car sites that I never use but might someday, maybe.  Just let me confirm the bank password for, “forget password?”  Yes.  Pet’s name?  “Buster”.  An email will be sent to your email account.  Open up the mail and enter the new password, “passwords do not match”, reenter and “weak?”, “password1”, weak, “password2”, weak, PaSsword1”, strong and strong it is.  Enough of this.

So I was thinking about how much I enjoy writing? I haven’t even started. To hell with it.  Maybe I’ll just sit here and think about good old Buster, what a great dog.  I always have warm feelings thinking about my pooch and I don’t have to remember a password so I can write to Buster because he died when I was 14.

The dome at night

Boarding a train en route is like moving into a new neighborhood, “you’re new aren’t you?”

You struggle with your luggage while the long-time residents seem to smile at your efforts to settle in.

Men’s room in the front of the car, two more coaches ahead and one behind.

Behind the car behind is the dining car.

When will dinner be served tonight?

They know but they’re not saying.

Ahead of the coaches is the dome, the car that makes your journey an adventure.

The coach gives you an address and the dining car feeds you but it’s the dome that lets you glide through your journey.

Angled seats let you view the scenery just like the people in the brochures.

The brochures with the men wearing suits and ties, ladies in dresses and jewelry and kids who look like corporate trainees.

Slide over to the window, that’s your spot as the day turns to twilight to night.

A blue sky darkens and the lights of the towns and automobiles flicker on as the rail and highway travelers race together toward the lighted outline of a town on the horizon.

The drivers strain to keep up with the train that looks straight ahead and doesn’t even know they exist.

The town grows close and the cars slow as the road swerves away but the train flies straight through as if the town was a cloud and disappears right before their eyes.

You look up and see the aisle lights reflect off the glass and stretch along its curves.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the stars from the reflections.

Up ahead you see a green signal and another in the distance.

The signals race toward you and then flash to red as the engines pass leaving another green signal ahead and one beyond that.

Mile after mile the green signals pull you along with a green and another green and then at last a red signal telling you to stop.

You pull into the station and there on the platform are the new, new guys waiting to board.

Time to go back and recline and sleep

You can come back tomorrow morning but when you do it’s different.

The daylight tells you where you are and how long it will be until your arrival.

The signals pass by now but each passing almost taunts you, telling you that you’re one mile closer.

At the station you step out onto the platform and the train looks straight ahead.