Flags

My grandparents were German.  Each immigrated to the US individually in the early 20th century, met in their adopted country and married.  They started a business and had 5 children, my mother the second oldest.

My grandfather died when I was 5.  I have few and fleeting memories of him.  There are fond and special glimpses of the brief time we knew each other.  I know that my mother adored him, and from what she has told me, he adored her as well.

She also told me, in so many words, that he was a Nazi sympathizer.    During World War II, as I’ve been told, he attended Bund meetings, gatherings of other German immigrants who in one way or another supported Hitler.  I also recall one rather uncomfortable dinner from my youth when my grandmother defended Hitler, much to the dismay of other family members around the table.  “He united the country,” I recall her saying.

My grandparents flew no Nazi flags.  Nor did my relatives in Germany who I had the chance to visit when I was in my teens.   While staying in the house of my grandfather’s cousin, I found a picture in a dark corner of an upstairs hallway.  It was my grandfather’s cousin in a Nazi uniform.  He found me looking at it and told me ‘that was a dark time.”  Yet the picture was there.

I have a cane, a walking stick that belonged to my grandfather.  On it are dozens of small, metal badges representing the town where he hiked during his youth.  It is a treasured piece to me, and a cane I have used on those occasions when I need one.  (When I broke my foot – twice, and when I have a rare attack of gout.)

One of the badges had a small Swastika on it.  I removed it from the cane.

I do not know of anyone, in my family or in their homeland (and I use that term intentionally) who raises a Nazi flag as a symbol of patriotism, history or respect.  To a one, everyone in my family is personally regretful and even embarrassed about those years.

Yes, there are those in Germany who still burnish that crooked-cross symbol.  They are those who hold to a belief long past, dangerous and incendiary.  They are not the German people I know, and they are a distress to those I know.  But that flag still exists, and it may never go away. But those who use this disgraceful symbol are not of my grandparents’ generation. The are using – stealing – a symbol for their own agendas, misguided as I hope all of us agree.

I am not comparing the Confederate flag to the Swastika, but I am.

The histories of both symbols are different, but very much the same.

They both represent a time in history when ideas were different, and those ideas were wrong.

To those who claim a patriotic, cultural, geographical or personal pride that makes them want to wave the flag of the Confederacy, might I politely suggest that you just don’t get it. The flag you wave today is NOT the flag raised of your ancestors. It has become a symbol of something more insidious that what it was intended to be when it was carried into battle some 150 years ago.

You are welcomed to hold onto your culture, tradition and history.  You most certainly can and should celebrate your heritage.  But don’t you understand that that simple piece of cloth has been adopted as a symbol of those who I hope even you would argue against, even fight against? Your symbol has been compromised. It has been stolen from you. History and heritage be damned. This is now a symbol of hate. And you know it is.

I hold my German heritage dear.  But I will never deny the cruelty, death and crimes committed by those of my blood line.  I am a proud German-American even as I see the guilt, shame and embarrassment of my family members who lived during World War II.  Crimes and same and guilt that I, by extension and blood line, I have to share.

Still, my family is German.  Proud of their ancestry and heritage, as am I.

And proud to call myself an American.

As an American, a German-American, a German,  I cannot and would never condone the raising of a Nazi flag to celebrate my family’s heritage.

I cannot understand why any Southern would feel that way about their old flag.

Unless, of course, you are…..

But you aren’t.  Are you?

John Rice

7/9/2015

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Defining Moments – Revisited

I wrote the following piece in May 2012, after South Carolina passed a law denying the right of same-sex couples to marry. The next day, President Obama publicly changed his opinion about the issue and supported marriage equality.

Three years is a short time in the timeline of public opinion and legal decisions, but in those years, a revolution took place.

We were ‘re-defined’ with a Supreme Court decision yesterday.

Below is my original post from 2012, with a postscript written in the early morning hours of the day after.

Defining Moments – May 2012

There are moments in time.  Defining moments.

We may not know them when they happen, but they happen.  They happen all the time.

Some are personal. Some impact our families, our communities, or nation or even our planet.  They happen all the time.  Good or bad, or yet to be determined, there are moments that change us whether we want to be changed or not.

Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play professional baseball in the U.S.  The game was forever changed.   Moment defined.

Women were voted the right to vote.  Moment defined.

A Catholic was elected President of the United States, and later a candidate of mixed color.  Moments defined.

A hurricane devastated New Orleans; a man named Madoff became the poster child for financial dealings that rippled down to virtually everyone;  a bomb destroyed a building in Oklahoma City and planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York.   After each, we were re-defined.

After each, we were different than we were before.

Better?  In many ways, of course.  Who of us would have done for us what Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, the rioters at Stonewall did to help us change.  Who of us is not better for what those who stormed Normandy Beach, or those who dumped tea in Boston Harbor did for us?

Who of us cannot say that what has happened to us, before us has not shaped us?  And who of us can honestly say we are not better for it.

No, all moments do not necessarily re-define or improve us – personally or communally.  We disagree as often as we agree.  And we often disagree as these ‘moments’ occur and their impacts slowly invade our national conscience.   But they impact us.  And, no matter how we feel about them, we are different because of them.  Maybe a day after, or a year, or a generation, or we just wake up one morning and know our world has changed.

That’s what we do.  We change.  We change for the better.   We get smarter, wiser…and as we were told in Sunday School or Temple or wherever we choose to reflect upon our beliefs and consciousness, we embrace that which is good, we discard that which is bad.  (And we ask forgiveness for the wrong decisions we may have made in our past.)   We pray.  Even agnostics and atheists pray – they just call it something different.

We pray to a higher being.  We pray for understanding of that which we cannot understand.  Why do buildings crumble to the ground?  Why does nature destroy a city?  Why does my neighbor not love me or respect me for who I am if we differ?

And my God, for one, does not answer.

My God, I suspect with a bit of a smirk on her face, and a not-so-subtle nudge on my shoulder says ‘go figure it out for yourself.’

My God cannot explain the Holocaust, or Tsunamis, or droughts, or floods or earthquakes or high gas prices, or falling housing, or unemployment…or ‘Jersey Shore’.

She somehow says to me, “This isn’t about me”.  And I understand.

Be it by her gift or our own instinct, we change.   And, to my mind, we change for the better.  I’m not sure if we need them but we have those ‘moments’ we can point to that show us, and those behind us, when we changed, and why.

Perfection eludes us, and always will.

Change, however is…inevitable.

Ask Rosa Parks.  Ask JFK.  Ask Cesar Chavez, or Barney Frank or the next person you pass on the street who may not look like or act like you.

Ask the next couple walking by, hand-in-hand, if they are in love.

Ask the voters of North Carolina (and 29 other states who disallow same-sex marriage) if they have ever been hand-in-hand in love.

And then, ask them to ask my God – no, ask their God – what is the problem with that?!

This is a moment that could stifle or inspire change.

Let’s define this moment.

—————————————————————————————————-

In the days and years since I originally wrote and posted this piece, attitudes and laws have changed. But as the issue gained prominence; as many states changed their laws and as many individuals (some government employees) defied directives to deny marriage rights to some, the tide began to change.

By 2015, 37 states legally endorsed and performed marriages, without regard of who wanted to marry whom. And that, by itself, signaled that a tipping point was on the horizon. In three brief years, the tide turned from 30 states that opposed it, to 37 that embraced it.

Well, ‘embraced’ may not be the right term. But they made it law.

Yes, the tide was turning, yet not without sometimes vehement opposition.

Then yesterday, it was over.   Marriage equality is now the law of the land.

Read the majority opinion of Justice Kennedy, it is as much legal opinion as it is prayer and poetry (excerpted):

“”No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

But wait. While the court decided the case by a 5-to-4 vote, all 4 of the dissenting justices wrote against the decision.

And their disagreement as well as the voices of others was almost as loud as the cheers of celebration heard around the country.

Yes, this is a defining moment. This is change.

But, I’ll suggest, it is only a beginning.

The ‘moment’ has been defined.

The celebration is most warranted and welcomed.

And I quietly join in the celebration that I know must mean so much to so many of the people I know, and those I only know because of their commitments, struggles and a simple wish to be allowed to be who they are.

In these early morning hours, I ask my god what is next. And she smiles at me, as she’s done before. And she seems to say to me, ‘embrace the day.’

And I think I hear her say, ‘Now, define tomorrow.’

June 27, 2015

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New Year’s Resolutions – 2015

My 2015 Resolutions

  • Those things I did, the good things, do them again
  • Those other things, don’t do them ever again
  • The decisions I made, make more – just keep making more of them better than bad.
  • Don’t make too many mistakes. Yeah, I will make some – who doesn’t? Just don’t make them really bad ones.
  • Take chances again. Hope some of them turn out good, even great.
  • Don’t be stupid. Or, at least don’t be really stupid.
  • Be smart. But it doesn’t have to be really smart.
  • Know that sometimes smart and stupid are not that far apart.
  • Those things I’ve always said I would do? Do them. At least some of them. One of them?
  • Do something I’ve always wanted to do, but never thought I could.
  • Don’t do something I never thought I wanted to do.
  • Do something I cannot imagine at this point. If it doesn’t find me, let me find it.
  • There are probably some other things, but I can’t think of them at this moment. I have a year to figure them out.

John Rice

January 1, 2015

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Black Friday will not go away until Black Friday goes away

In the 1940’s, Franklin Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November (as it was established by Abraham Lincoln) to the 4th Thursday.  It essentially expanded the ‘holiday’ season by a week and it was undeniably a move to boost the economy and retail sales.   While the holiday was borne of traditions celebrating the final harvest, Thanksgiving has been the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season since early in the 20th century.

We may have Macy’s to blame for making Thanksgiving the kick-off of the shopping season when the store first mounted its parade in 1924, with the arrival of Santa at the end of the parade, signaling shoppers to take out their wallets.  The words ‘Black Friday’ are traced to the 1960s (in terms of the selling season – although it had been used earlier in regards to financial crises going back to the 1860s).  For the retail world, ‘Black Friday’ has been considered the day when companies move from being in the Red (losing money) to the Black (profitability).  It may or may not be true that a retailer’s profits are exclusively made in the last 5 weeks of a calendar year, but that is what we are told.

For many years, Black Friday was the day when retailers offered special sales, lower prices and other incentives for shoppers to shake off the turkey and head to the mall.  It took a while for them to abandon their usual operating hours and open earlier….and earlier…and earlier…and of late, on Thanksgiving Day.

The retailers are not blame.  At least not all of them.

Imagine that you own a store.  Your biggest competitor is across the street and you both sell essentially the same stuff.  For years, you both open every morning at 9:00 AM.  You both have sales.  There really isn’t much to differentiate you from the guys across the street.  You fight the battle for customers by offering a better deal, a better price or a better product.  (But let’s be honest, most of the stuff highlighted in Black Friday/Thanksgiving sales is far from the best stuff.  For the most part, they aren’t selling quality, they are selling price.  But that’s another argument for another time.)

So one year, the store across the street opens an hour earlier than you.  So, the next year, you open an earlier than they do.  And the next year, and the next year and then you are both opening at 3AM, then at midnight, and then on the night of Thanksgiving day….

And you do it for two simple reasons: 1) because your competition is doing it, and 2) because people are showing up.

Neither of the above is likely to change.  People like a bargain, people like the deals….and many people truly enjoy Black Friday!

Drive by almost any major retailer a few hours before they open on Black Friday or Thanksgiving day.  There is a line outside.  Folks bring chairs, some have tents.  Some bring food and drinks.   Some order pizza.  (“I’m the 45th person in line outside of ‘Cheap Stuff’.  Can I get 3 pies with everything and 2 liters of soda?  Do you have beer?”)

These folks are going to be there every year, whether the store opens in the midnight hours or at dawn, or before the last piece of pumpkin pie has been passed around the family table.

This is not going to change until it changes.

And it is changing.

Retailers, from national chains to local businesses are starting to expand Black Friday beyond even Thanksgiving day.  They are promoting Black Friday prices over a number of days leading up to Thanksgiving.   They really aren’t being nice guys, they really just want you to open your wallet…in their store.

And that is why Black Friday may go away.

It’s not really up to us.  We can pledge not to shop on Thanksgiving day or Black Friday, but plenty of others will.  We can profess our disapproval of Thanksgiving day openings (some polls say 90% of us object to it.  For example: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/poll-retailers-remain-open-thanksgiving/.)

Protests and petitions will not make most retailers alter their plans and operating hours.  But things like Cyber Monday and Shop Small/Shop Local efforts are having some impact.

Black Friday/Thanksgiving openings will only end when they no longer make sense.  When they no longer have a competitive advantage.  When they no longer have an impact on the bottom line.

It will happen.

It won’t happen next year or the year after.  But it will happen.

It will happen when being a part of the ever encroaching opening times no longer make sense for the retailers.  It will happen when retailers see a competitive (or image) advantage to NOT opening on Thanksgiving day (and that is starting to happen this year).

This is not to say that any individual boycott of shopping on Thanksgiving day doesn’t have an impact.  In its own small way, it does.

As does shopping local, at small businesses in your neighborhood.

But you were not likely to stand in line for hours for a cheap TV from a brand you’ve never heard of.  And you probably already shop at that boutique in your town.   If not, you should.

Yet, if you enjoy the mayhem of the lines, the bargains and spending Thanksgiving day in a retail environment with a bunch of strangers, go ahead.

Enjoy it while you can.

Black Friday will, someday, go away.

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Half-ty

There is a philosophical theory, as I recall, that suggests an arrow can never reach its target.

It goes like this: In order to reach a target, an arrow much travel half the distance first.  Then it has to cover half of the remaining distance.  Then half again…and then again.  By this account, the arrow never reaches the target because there is always another half distance to go.

Yet it does.

I recently had my half-birthday, that date in which I was half a year past my last birthday cake and 6 months away from my next.  Call it my ‘Half-ty Birthday.”  No need to send cards or flowers.  There was no cake.  No candles.

But as I’ve known for a while, I am closer to the target than I am to the bow, I am kinda liking that ‘half way there’ theory.

My son just celebrated his 22nd birthday.  And did so with a bit of a ‘ho-hum’.  22 is nothing special. It’s not a milestone.  It’s not like 10 (a decade), or 18 (vote), or 21. Or 30, 40, etc. to come.  I fear the older we get – whether counting in years or decades – the landmarks are fewer and further between.  And we move far beyond counting half-ties.

We mark our lives with other benchmarks that may or may not have easy calendar references.  Marriages, births, jobs, divorces, loss of loved ones are some.  There is no half-way mark to reach those.  Few have half-ways beyond them.  These are not arrows.

Nor are we.

We don’t tend to travel in straight lines like an arrow released toward a target.  We may launch in a direction but winds and other factors take us on different courses.  And even arrows miss their targets – soaring away from their goal or burying themselves in the ground far short of where they were intended to go.

And we know that.  Yet we still go on.  What choice do we have?  We have been ‘launched.’  We have been aimed – by our choice or by others, and we continue to travel until we are stopped – by our intended target, a newly found or unexpected target, or we float until we fall to the ground.  But until we get there, we still go half-way, then half-way and half-way again.  And, unlike that simple arrow, we can change course.  We can find new goals, new targets.  And we may, or may not reach them.  (And for this argument that really doesn’t matter.)

I’m half-way to my next milestone, if you count in years.  It ends with a zero.  Nuff said.

My arrow has missed many targets and has flown in directions never expected.  It has pierced the clouds and burrowed in the soil, but it continues to fly – getting half-way closer, and half-way again to whatever target is next.  I hope it has a long way to go.

Recent events suggested my ‘half-ways’ might be shorter than I hoped – that my arrow might fall to the ground before my next milestone, before my next target.  But I believe they are wrong.  They are wrong!

I’m honestly not sure where this arrow of mine is going.

I do believe that I’m only half way there.

John Rice

8/6/14

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From a Wizard

Diagon Alley: A Wizard’s Point-of-View

There is magic happening in Diagon Alley.

Well, there has always been magic here.  Diagon Alley is the place where wizards and witches have shopped and dined for years, perhaps centuries.   School Robes, wands, magical animals, Quidditch gear.  It’s here.  Dark magic can be found if one knows where to look.  And any witch or wizard can refresh with a ButterBeer or a cone of amazing ice cream.

But something new is happening in Diagon Alley.

In recent days, Muggles have been seen walking the streets, shopping the stores, eating, drinking….and skipping down the cobblestones!  Muggles!  Skipping!

I am relatively new to Diagon Alley, only recently taking my place amongst the shopkeepers here.  And I have heard that something similar seems to have happened in Hogsmeade Village a few years ago.  Now that something is happening here.

It is magic.  And I think it is just beginning.

A dragon sits atop Gringott’s Bank.  Celestina Warbeck sings in Carkitt Market.   A flick of a wand makes shrunken heads sing, a skeleton dance, a quill float in air, an umbrella rains and……

Did I mention that the dragon breathes fire?

But all of this (and there’s a lot more) is only a part of the magic that I am seeing.

I’ve seen a woman cry as she walked thru the wall to enter Diagon Alley.  I’ve seen a young wizard delight as a wandmaster in Olivander’s helps him match to his wand.  I’ve heard the mirror in Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions compliment a guest.  (By the way, that mirror told me that I “look marvelous”, so I must believe her to be true.)  I’ve watched a crowd of hands with Muggle devices (they call them phones, cameras and tablets they tell me) raised in the air as the dragon breathes her fire.   And I’ve heard them cheer.

There is magic here.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve heard it.  I’ve felt it.

I must confess that a at times I’ve slipped out of my wizard dress and changed into a Muggle costume to walk amongst the crowd.   And there is where I have truly seen what Diagon Alley is.

It is not solely about dragons, goblins, Death Eaters, owls, quills, or even ButterBeer. (Well, maybe it is a little about ButterBeer.)  But what I see is about delight, wonder, excitement, exploration, hugs and tears and smiles.  It is about the sense of wonder in the eyes of a child as she first enters.  It is about the delight of a family that is somehow – I can’t explain it – drawn closer as they explore this land together.  Yes, it is about the tears of those who are immersing themselves in our ancient alley for the first time.

And it is about the smiles.  Oh, the smiles.  They are contagious.

I watched as three of my fellow shopkeeps knelt down to talk with two young children, dressed in their school robes and proudly displaying their wands.   I did not hear a word that was spoken, but I saw the young wizard and witch delight – as they stroked the magical animals my friends were holding.  I saw in those young eyes the sense of wonderment that can be found in few places such as ours.  I think I may a have seen a glint of tear in the eyes of my fellow wizards.  But I may only be remembering that I wiped a tear out from mine.

We are wizards and witches.  We don’t  cry.  Do we?

We are purveyors of magic.  No more.  No less.

When you visit Diagon Alley.  Walk around.  Look around.   And find the magic.  You’ll find it in the shop windows, the music, the bank and throughout the Alley.  But the true magic is in the smiles, hugs, tears, but especially in the eyes of those who walk through the wall.  As you see it, if you wipe a finger across your eye, that’s OK.

But maybe the true magic is not so much in what Diagon Alley offers its guests.  Perhaps it is in the swirl or wands and sounds of laughter and cheers and those inexplicable smiles of those who immerse themselves in these streets.  And somehow carry us along in their gleeful experiences.

There is something happening here in Diagon Alley. There is magic here.  It is as much for our wizard, witch and, yes, Muggle guests as it is for us.

And it’s just beginning.

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Idyll Talk

Idyll Talk

 It is not so much that winter has arrived as autumn has gone.  The trees have turned, the birds have vanished and the holidays have passed assuring that there has been no miscalculation of time.  But the moment is awkward.  Winter has not arrived.  It is as if the season were a traveler who has missed a scheduled bus or plane.  No one doubts its arrival, they only question the time.  Both the traveler and the party awaiting his arrival are left in limbo and, if anything, look for someone or something on which to place the blame.

___________

It rains.  It should be snowing and I am late.  It is as much my fault as it is of my transportation.  I’m late, again, as usual, and will offer the excuse that the train schedules have changed since I last traveled to the country from the city.   Arriving at the station, I grab a friendly cab to take me to my appointed brunch.  The day tempts winter and freezes the rain to the road, further delaying my arrival.  But the driver and I manage through, sliding occasionally, slipping back and forth from pleasant conversation to gasps of panic and back to pleasantries.  He drops me off at the restaurant and continues on his way.

I find her in the back, next to a huge fireplace that rivals the size of some Manhattan apartments.  The flames blaze as if it were the dead of winter.  She sits facing the window, away from the room, looking out onto a country street and the city tourists who have come for a Sunday in the country air.

“Sorry,” I say standing behind her.  “The road was slick, and….I was late in getting off.”  She turns and smiles and tilts her head, acting more a teenager than a woman in her early thirties.  There is no sign that she’s upset, perhaps simply resigned to the idea that I rarely arrive when due.  In fact, there is little sign of anything at all expect three cigarette butts in an ashtray, her Bloody Mary emptied except for the pink ice and a lonely stalk of celery.

“Been waiting long?”

She tilts her head, “Ten minutes?”

I take the seat across from her.  For the briefest moment we are silent, staring, smiling.

“So, he didn’t stand you up.”  It takes the waiter to break the moment.  I shoot him a nasty glance and he shrugs an apology, perhaps with a wink.  Rather than give him an unnecessary explanation, I order two Bloody Marys.  He hands me a menu.

Before I can speak she asks my question, “So how are you?”  Sometimes I suspect I speak too freely, too fast and foolishly.  I want to tell her everything that has happened to me no matter how petty or insignificant.  I want to tell her where I eat, who I see, what I do each hour, and what I don’t do.  The world is doing me well right now.   I want her to know that at this moment I feel as though I control it.  But I don’t know where to begin.

“I’m good.”

“Really?”  She is unconvinced.  We’ve talked too often and for too long.  Our conversations usually begin over a problem, hers or mine.  I’m a bit embarrassed that there’s not some searing tragedy-in-the-making that requires her counsel.

“Actually,” I say, “I’m great.  New York is a dream.  It’s not real.  Not yet.”  I can feel myself lifting up as I speak, and I’m afraid I may actually stand and waltz about the room.  “I’m having more fun, doing more, working more, and enjoying everything.  I can’t believe I didn’t do this earlier.

“I’ve got a huge expense account.  I eat in fine restaurants.  And next month, they’re sending me to Paris for four days.  Paris!”

I feel a smirk coming.  “All the fine restaurants?” she says with a knowing smile.

I smile back, “Every single one.  Hey, I’m enjoying this life.  I like dressing in expensive suits, eating in expensive restaurants and tipping moderately well.  I can go to the theater or a club – or both.  I can spend weekends in the mountains or at the beach.  If I see something I want, I can buy it.  If I see a woman I like…”

“You can buy it.”

“I ask her out.  And she goes!”

Her smile tightens and her eyes move past mine and look out the window behind me.  I think I’ve said too much.

“How’s Jenny?”

She doesn’t expect the  question, but it brings her back to the table.  Slowly, she begins to tell me the troubles or raising her daughter now that she’s alone.  The eight-year-old girl doesn’t understand her father’s infrequent visits and why it is longer between each time she sees him.  Jenny doesn’t know that it was her mother’s idea to leave, but neither Mom nor Dad has offered to tell her the specifics of the change.  Now, it’s as if he’s abandoned any responsibility toward the girl.  Just as her mother abandoned him.

“But Jenny has become my salvation,” she says to me and her eyes come back to life.  It is her time to be buoyed by enthusiasm.  “Two weeks ago, I took her to the opera.  She could have cared less about the music, but was possessed by the costumes and the sets.”

In time, she tells me of her new job, how she has less and less time with her daughter, but how much more she is enjoying those times.

We talk about our lives.  We talk of our dreams.  I think we talk of just about everything on our minds.

___________

Labor Day weekend is cooler than most I remember.  It may be the city, or the job, or a man’s fading dream of summer.  It may just be fading dreams.

I can’t recall being alone on Labor Day.  There were always family gatherings, beach parties or romantic picnics in the park.

This year it feels better to be alone.   I figure it will be good practice.  What better than a beer, a few hamburgers and a Sunday afternoon on the apartment roof.  I settle in.

The sun is warm enough and the beer is strong enough that I’m soon dozing in a longue chair recently retrieved from a nearby sidewalk.  It is only the sound of the traffic and the playground across the street that keeps me from falling into a deep sleep.  I think I hear my name, but decide to ignore it.  I learned a long time ago that more times than not, when someone called my name, it usually wasn’t me they were calling.

When the shout includes “Hey, are you up there?”  I decide to investigate.  Fortunately, the roof allows a clear view of the front stoop if one leans over, just shy of falling off.  Unfortunately, the beer and sun makes me nearly do that.  Below, I see two faces staring up with panicked expressions as they assume I am about to plummet down on them.

“We didn’t think you were home,” she shouts up to me.  “Jenny made me wait.  She said you were probably up on the roof.”  I greet them at the apartment door with an empty trash bag in my hand.  They made it up the stairs faster than I could gather the trash and beer bottles decorating the place.

She’s radiant.  Her age refuses to show.

“Hello?”  She tilts her head and smiles.  Then her expression changes to embarrassment.  “We came at a bad time, didn’t we?  We should have called.”

“No! No, not at all.”  I’m lost in looking at her.  Conversation is not coming easy.  Nor are manners.  “Come in.”   As I turn I see the mess I hadn’t cleaned up.  No!

“Let’s go up to the roof.  It’s too nice a day.”  On the roof, I’m the only mess to deal with.

I grab two beers and a soda for Jenny despite her request for something stronger and her mother’s negative reaction.  We head up the dingy stairway to the patch of sunlight squeezing between the concrete around us.  I do my best to dust off two beaten plastic chairs and set them next to my rescued lounge.   Jenny doesn’t sit, but wanders to a corner of the roof, leaning over the edge of the building and staring into the city while we sit and talk.  She is now as tall as her mother and most certainly a mirror of the woman I know, twenty-some years younger.

“She’s sixteen,” she says.

“About half my age,” I say, making an inconvienent attempt at a joke.  “She’s beautiful.  She’s grown since I last saw her, what some 3 or 4 years ago.”

“Six.  Six years.”

We are running the risk of sinking into small talk.  I try to think of what I really want to say.

“What the hell are you doing here?!”

She’s older, certainly.  But she isn’t her age, and looks much as I remember her from what I know are too many missing years.  Our weekend brunches became more infrequent from year to year until our meetings were replaced by occasional phone calls then little more than notes in Christmas cards.  The day’s light breeze catches her auburn hair and brushes it into her face.  She pushes it back, making the gesture part of something she is saying, but I don’t hear it.  Only once does the sun betray the slightest touches of silver that are creeping in.  The sun is hitting her square in the face and she squints, exposing the thinnest of lines around her eyes.  When she smiles, perfectly straight lines are drawn from corners of her mouth toward her chin.

“We decided to spend a girls’ weekend in New York,” she explains.  “See some people, shop, see a show.  Jenny asked about you.  She thinks she wants to be an actress or a model…”

“She’s pretty enough.”

“Thank you.  I thought it was time she saw some of the mean streets of the city, see if this is what she really wants. Her father is here.  He says he’ll help her.”

Her eyes return to me and her look turns from one of loving concern to concern.

“How are you?”

“Alright,” I lie.

“You’ve lost weight.”

I smile.  “Stress.”

“How’s your work?” she asks.  But she somehow knows.

“I’ll find something.”

For the briefest moment, we are silent.

“Pam?”

“I haven’t seen her in over a month.”

I won’t look at her.  She stands and walks behind me.  I jerk away as she touches my head.

“I’m OK,” I protest. “I am!”

I reach to push her hand away and feel a ring on her finger.

“Been shopping, I see.”

She laughs.  She tells me she married last fall.  She’s happy and I’m glad.  But Jenny has not taken to her step-father.  That’s part of the reason for the trip to New York – girl-time.  And Jenny wanted to see her father who has been trying to come back into her life.

Our talk turns to reminiscing. We talk about old times, good times, even if time has painted prettier, simpler versions of those times.  We remember only the good times.

Jenny looks restless.

“We should go,” she suggests.

I walk them down to the street.

“It’s been too long,” I say and she agrees.  Jenny is by the curb kicking at some trash, a contradiction of innocent child and beautiful woman.

She looks at me, concerned.

“I’ll be OK.”

She reaches up and cups my cheek, like a mother does a child.  She stares at me most deeply, and then leans in kissing me goodbye on the cheek.  I decline an invitation to dinner, inventing a previous commitment that doesn’t exist.

” That’s a shame. It’s a birthday dinner,” she smiles.  They walk toward the corner.

Who’s birthday?” I call out.  “Jenny’s? Your’s!”

She looks back over her shoulder with a smile.

“How old are you?”

“Younger than I look, older than I feel,” she smiles.

They vanish around the corner.

 ___________

The summer when I was 10 or 11 years old, I fell in love.   I bought a plastic ring on the boardwalk that looked like a cigar band and gave it to my heart’s desire.  It was a bold gesture for someone my age, even bolder because she said she had a boyfriend back home.  But I knew the girl always stayed with the guy who gave her a ring.  I was playing for keeps.

She said it was cute and she was delighted to have a new boyfriend like me, but we had to keep it secret so her ‘other’ boyfriend wouldn’t find out.  She didn’t understand that I expected her to give him up.  I let her keep the ring, hoping it would help her change her mind.

Later that day, I saw her with some other girls.  She had something in her hand and they were all laughing.  When they saw me, she snapped her hand closed and they stopped laughing.  They had to be laughing about me.

I resolved never to fall in love with an older woman again.  After all, she was fourteen.

 ___________

 I’m not much of a stage door Johnny.  I hate meeting celebrities because I’m always at a loss for words.  It doesn’t make any sense, I know.  They are people just like me.  But they are somehow different.

Then again, tonight is different.  This isn’t a star.  This is a friend.  Still, I don’t have the nerve to go inside.  I’ll wait with the small crowd on the street.

I don’t like standing here amidst fans and paparazzi.  I’m uncomfortable and feeling foolish.  I decide I’ll pretend I am waiting for a bus.  I’m waiting for a friend who is overdue.

The city smells of the beginning of spring while the last of winter holds on.  What little snow remains is dirty and hard.  The last few days have melted most of the winter away until only small patches remain as spring approaches.

I don’t see the door open, only the flash of cameras and the scurry of fans.  All around people are calling “Jennifer.  Jennifer”.

“Jenny!”  I call out as others look at me.

The crowd, which has grown larger, pushes me away.

“Jenny!” I shout.  “Over here!”

She turns to me, smiles, but I don’t think she sees me.   More cameras flash.   In another burst of light, she is running to me, throwing her arms around me.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I saw the show,” I say casually.

She hugs me tight as more cameras click and flash.  “Put your arms around me,” she whispers.  “They’ll think we’re lovers.”

I hear a voice ask “Who is that?”  There is no answer.

She pulls me through the crowd and down the street to an unmarked doorway.  “You have time to buy me a drink, don’t you?” she asks.  “You do owe me a beer.”

We walk up the back stairs of the club and are given a table in the corner next to a silent fireplace.  Outside the window, tourists and theater-goers wander by.  She tells me I am looking more handsome than ever since my hair turned grey.  I tell her she is more beautiful since her hair went blonde.  She tilts her head and smiles.

I don’t ask, but she tells me she is worried for her mother.

“She’s not sick or anything, she’s just not doing well,” she explains.  “She’s all alone. I asked her to come stay with me for a while, but she doesn’t want to come to the city.  I don’t know.  I think she’s just not happy anymore.”  Her eyes fill.  I think mine do too.

“Quiet,” I say, handing her a napkin.  “Take your time.”

For a moment, we are silent.

Her hand moves, almost unseen, to brush her hair from her eyes or perhaps to catch a tear.  I’m looking at her, but I don’t see her.  I see a wrinkle in the corner of her young eyes.  A shadow crosses the corner of her mouth and runs straight down toward her chin.  She forces a smile.  She reaches and touches my hand and I feel her fingers entwine with mine.  She speaks.

“Were you and Mom lovers?”

My smile is tight-lipped, “No.”

“That’s a shame.”

___________

 The sand is fine, tiny specks.  You can’t grasp it or hold it.  It slips through your fingers no matter how much you want to keep it.  When the wind blows, it stings your skin.

I’ve fallen across a castle, or more precisely a former sand castle ravaged by the high tide.  She continues to run across the beach and is maybe twenty yards away before she turns and sees that I am down.

She taunts me.  “Get up.  Hurry up or you’ll never catch me!”  She waves my hat above her head, the object that started this chase.

I reach for something to pull myself up, but find nothing but sand.  It’s in my mouth.  She continues to call to me, running backwards, goading me until she sees I’m up and continuing the race.  She turns and runs faster away.

After a burst of speed that surprises me, I catch her, tackle her and we fall into the sand at the edge of the water.  We are laughing, covered in sand sticking to our wet and warm bodies.  A couple walks by, looking down on us with a smile or distain.  I’m not sure.  I don’t care.

She wipes the sand off my lips with her finger.  Then leans down and kisses me.

“I think we should have an affair,” she says.

“As soon as I catch my breath,” I say.

“I don’t think I can wait that long.”  She laughs as she starts to get to her feet.  But I pull her back to the sand and surf and we kiss.  And kiss again.

That is the extent of our affair.

 ___________

 “When do you go back,” she asks.

“I’ve got time.  There are trains every hour, so there’s no rush,” I say.  “But I don’t want to get back to late.  I have a full day tomorrow.”

“Fine restaurant?”

“The finest,” I reply.  “It’s part of the job.”

She laughs.  I feel good when I make her laugh.

The waiter clears our dishes and I order two more Bloody Marys despite her meager objection.  We have so much more to talk about and we’ve said so much already.  I invite her to visit me in New York.  “Bring Jenny,” I insist.

She says she’ll come as soon as her life settles down a bit.  Maybe she’ll bring Jenny.  Maybe she’ll come alone.

“But you will visit?”

“Definitely”, she says.

“Promise?”

“Don’t be childish,” she says tilting her head.

I take her hand and we are silent, smiling.  Neither seems sure of what to say.  When start to speak, she sits up in her chair, looking past me out the window.

“Look,” she says.  “It’s snowing!  When did that start?”

The streets and sidewalks outside the restaurant are covered with the thinnest veil of white, an opaque glaze that makes the little country village sparkle in the combination of snowfall and twilight.  It is a glimpse of a magic moment that one has but an instant to capture.  One tries hard to memorize the sight and the feeling it evokes, because you know as it passes it will never be like this again.  In another minute the sun will be gone, the snow may stop falling.   The moment will be gone.

All I can think to say is “sometimes, I wish I could talk to you forever.”

I don’t.

We sit in silence and the waiter brings the check.

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My Uncle Al

I learned this afternoon that my Uncle Al has passed away.

My mother’s little brother, and the last of their generation left us after 89 years.

Alvin Woerle was the son of Katherine (Stahl) and Arnulf Woerle.  My grandfather, Arnulf, emigrated from Germany as did my grandmother, Katie.  They came from different towns and different regions of Germany, met in America, married, started a business and had four children, Arnulf Jr. (Sonny), Elvira, Virginia and Alvin.  Their’s is a story often told of those of the early 20th century.

Now, their story is ours to continue.

‘Sonny’ Woerle died in childhood.  Virginia (Ginny) left us tragically and too early with five children to carry on.  My mom, Elvira, celebrated her 93rd birthday two years ago, and died two days later.  And Alvin, the last of that generation, wall called home this week.

Mom would tell the story of her young brother, during his High School days, showering before a Saturday night out. Then he would sit in the living room in boxer shorts and a T-shirt with a hat.  The hat, he explained, would put a curl in his hair that the girls loved.

And, yes, the girls loved him.  He was a basketball star, president of his class – and, from the photos I have seen, quite the handsome man.

He served in World War II as a pilot, often flying secret missions (sometimes over his parents’ homeland).  He sent letters to his sister, and gifts.  Many of the letters were edited and censored to eliminate any information or even hints of where he was.  But, the gifts – my Mom would tell me – told her where he was, and more importantly, that he was safe.

My Uncle Al was a war hero.

A day or two after my mother passed away, I received a letter in the mail from Uncle Al.  It was written before he knew she had died.  He was apologizing for not visiting his sister because of his own failing health, and asked me to tell her how much he loved her and wished the best for her.  I never had the chance to read that letter to my mother, but I would like to think that she knew that – and that he had the chance to tell her this week.

To be honest, my mother and my uncle – Elvira and Alvin – had their moments, disagreements and divisions.  Find me two siblings who haven’t had their differences.  But they were the son and daughter of Katherine and Arnulf and they were forever bound in that relationship.

I can only imagine the reunion of sister and brother.  And I have thought of it often today.

 

We don’t truly know what happens when one leave us.

But I see a dinner table.  My grandfather sits at the head, stoically, as I remember him – and perhaps doting on his namesake son.  My mother and her sister tease each other and giggle as sisters are wont to do.

The one, long empty chair is now occupied.

My grandmother brings the last dish from the kitchen, takes her place with the family and sternly says, with perhaps a glint of a smile, “Alvin, take off that hat.”

He is home.

 

John Rice

October 18, 2012

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Of Tchotchkes and Turtles

When I was a kid, my Dad attended one conference every year.   We went as a family and on one day of his conference, he would take me into the exhibit hall – and allow me to collect all the giveaways I could carry.  So armed with a bag (a give-away unto itself) I gathered up the rulers, notebooks, buttons and stickers and more items than I can remember that vendors at this educational meeting were offering – including turtles.

I honestly can’t tell you most of what I dropped in my bag, but I distinctly remember – some 40+ years later – that someone gave me turtles.  Two turtles.   Little ones. 

We brought them home, bought a bowl and turtle food and other decorations to make them feel ‘at home.’  I think they died a week or two later. 

I don’t think they made any impression on my Dad, at least not in a positive sense.

Years later, I am the owner of a marketing company that is often asked to create promotional items for our clients – for trade shows, events, or as sales call leave-behinds.   Over the years, I’ve come to understand 3 basic and simple rules:

1)      The item has to be memorable. 

When you hand it to someone, they say ‘Wow.”

 This doesn’t mean it has to be expensive.  But it does have to be different.  Whether you are passing it out in an exhibit hall, or handing it to a prospective buyer, it has to garner a reaction.  A positive reaction.  You want that customer to genuinely say ‘Thank you.”

 2)      It becomes part of their business or personal life. 

 Will it sit on their desk, reminding them (however subtly) of your company?  Will they use it – like a portfolio or a pen (more about pens another time) where they will see your logo in their daily business lives?  

 Or will they take it home?  A magnet he puts on the refrigerator, a notepad she puts by the phone, or even a silly thing to give to their kids. 

 Does it make an impact, deliver and re-deliver a message long after you place it in their hands? 

 3)      It says something about your company or product.

 Does this item remind the customer about what you do?  If you are a builder, a tape measure?  A computer company, how about a flash drive?  Got a catalogue of health products?  Give ‘em a loofa.   You get the idea.  Match the tchotchke to your business.  Let it help you deliver your message.

 Of course, these rules (like all rules) are made to be broken.  Your giveaway may be disposable – (candy, a bottle of water).  It may be a coupon.  Or a bowl of chips and dip in your exhibit area.  (We once gave away $1 table chip to a casino next to an exhibit hall.  It was a great promo.  But the casino took objection.  So, we converted the promo to a raffle where people could win a $1 token.  The casino was satisfied.  Oh, yeah, everybody won.)  

 Or maybe your promo item does no more or no less than to make them laugh.

 If It makes an impression – it works!

 Let’s face it, a pen, or t-shirt or $1 or a loofa doesn’t close a sale.  But, done right it adds that glimmer of a positive feeling about your company and products.   Hey, your customer may not even understand why they like you – but they do.

 If you are going to spend the money to put your logo, your message, your phone number and website and whatever other info you want your customers to see, on a little piece of something that really doesn’t close a sale, take your time.  Spend your money wisely (and it doesn’t have to be a lot).

 But, you have to work at it. 

 I’ve driven suppliers and clients crazy trying to find that ideal item.  My best vendors learned that I didn’t want to see catalogues – and the best one I’ve ever worked with walks into my office with a gleam in his eyes that says ‘wait until you see this!’ 

 And clients, the good ones (and they know who they are), have that same twinkle in their eyes as I reach into my bag to reveal my latest suggestion.

 (Yes, the tchotchkes I recommend to them are also sales tools for me!)

 But I wander off topic.  The topic is what works and why.  And there really is no magic bullet.  (And, to be honest, not all of my ideas have been home runs, and some potential big scorers I believed in weren’t to my clients’ taste.  But I think we won more than we lost.)

 That’s really all you can ask of a tchotchke.  To win one.  It is there to ask your customers and your prospective customers to remember you.

  In a positive way.

 Not like turtles.

 John Rice

 John Rice is an award-winning writer, author and video producer.  His company, Komedia Group  (www.komediagroup.com) has worked with companies including Sony Electronics, BMW, Mack Trucks and a lot of other clients that you may not have heard about – but you will. 

 [Next time: Let’s talk about the good and bad of pens.  And the best T-shirt I ever (accidentally) created for a client.]

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Of Baseball, and Beer and a Pool

It was time for us to leave our newlywed apartment and look for a house, a home to raise a family.  The quest was difficult, in a time when houses for sale were rare and interest rates were at double-digits.  Yet, on a Sunday afternoon, we found an open-house listed in a newspaper and went to take a look.

 It was nothing special, a split-level on a street we would later learn was busier that we suspected on that afternoon.  We liked it. 

 “There’s  a pool,” I said.  My wife smiled and said “Yeah!”

 We made an offer on the house that night.   We bought the house – with a pool.

 In the years we lived there, my personal goal was to spend at least as much time enjoying that pool as I spent enjoying it.  I don’t think the math ever worked in my favor. 

 But I miss that pool.

 I miss it on hot summer nights when I would grab a beer, turn on the radio to listen to a baseball game and drift in a floating lounge chair, with a cupholder, and let whatever baggage of the day wash away.

 Our sons were born in that house, and they swam in that pool.

 But we’re not there anymore. 

We moved, moved on – for better and for worse.   To a bigger, better house.  Then to a smaller house. 

We’ve never had another pool. 

We changed.

Don’t we all.

Was once a time when we were told, and we believed that we had nowhere to go but ‘up.’  The world was our oyster, or words to that effect.  We would be better than those who came before us.  We would be more sincere, more honest, more open, more active and  pro-active.  We would, and could, change the world.

We believed it.

We believed it on the banks of a hill of a concert drenched in rain.  We believed it in a crowd marching down a street with banners and singing songs.

We believed it at polling places.

We didn’t want pools, but that’s where many of us ended up swimming. 

We were a generation of change, but we didn’t really change anything, did we? 

We went swimming at midnight, with a beer and a ball game, with nary an apology to those ideals we once held high in our youthful commitments.

We wanted to change the world.  We settled for swimming pools.

So, I’m sitting here in an apartment, wondering why I don’t have a grandiose house on a hill (with a swimming pool). I’m wondering where I went this way instead of that way, and if those choices were as bad as they seem to have been.

I’m wondering where I drifted away from my ideals – with an acknowledgement that ideals don’t pay the rent – and decided only to live my life to pay the rent.  And, I’m wondering if the fact that I can’t always pay the rent might be, in some part, because I walked away from who I am.

I’m wondering if our old, somewhat compromised idea  that we could ‘change the world’, was an investment misspent.

I’m thinking that we can’t.

But I want to believe, with whatever folly, that we can.

And I miss my pool.

And I want to know why, and where I have failed.  And to be reminded of where, and why I have succeeded.

Because we all do (succeed and stumble).  We all win ones, and lose others, don’t we. 

And we all get up each morning, dust ourselves off, and go take on the new day.

Don’t we?

 Do we?

 It’s been a long time since I bought into the American dream.  I have seen classmates, friends, and colleagues tossed aside as their services are ‘no longer needed’.  I’ve watched great and brilliant people strive to re-invent themselves in a social and economic world that no longer values them – while they (and I) have admittedly failed to react, respond, re-learn, and redefine ourselves and a valued and valuable members of our new economy.

 Do we ‘get it?” Maybe.

 Can we be good at it? Absolutely.

 Can we still ‘Change the world?’  You better believe, we can.

 And we’ll find a pool, a baseball game and cold beer….

 And maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember how we got here, and our stumbles along the way…and where we need to go.

 If and when we do, step aside…and get ready to see where we are going.

 We have a pool. The water is fine.  Jump in.

 John Rice

8/9/2012

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