Friday, April 30, 2010

War--What Is It Good For?

We are at war with an insidious enemy who seeks to destroy the very fabric of our freedom. No, I am not talking about the misguided debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am referring to pigeons, “the stout-bodied birds with short necks and slender bills”, according to Wikipedia. The feral rock pigeon variety has invaded our neighborhood and is attempting to permanently relocate to our back deck.

How did this happen? Several months ago, the Homeowner Association’s Board of Directors, of which I was the president for four years until my term concluded two weeks ago, allocated more than $15,000 to control these ornithological pests with a series of spikes and nets strategically placed along the rooftops and eaves of our 63-unit townhouse community.

Part of the pigeon control program also included high-powered cleaning along the sides of homes with several severely clogged downspouts that were filled with assorted detritus and tons of pigeon poop. Some of the clogged spouts overflowed onto roofs and caused water damage to a few units.

The other four directors supported the initial outlay of money, which targeted designated areas around the complex, but were against a total assault and solution. They said it was too expensive.

Only one director, the outgoing president and financially generous author of this blog, favored spending more money now to rid ourselves of the persistent pigeon problem with a complete and relentless campaign of shock and awe.

The board was desperate for a solution to a potential large scale health hazard and total community nuisance, so we even entertained the idea of arming neighborhood kids with BB guns and authorizing them with a license to kill. Alas, our stronger sense of morality and fear of massive lawsuits caused us to abort that plan before it was hatched.

I guess we could have acted as our neighbors in Arizona, and treated all pigeons as suspect and deported them back to their native countries.

What we have now, though, a few months outside the initial treatment, is a grave and unhealthy situation as the pigeons continue their stealth attacks on decks, rooftops, spouts, and sides of buildings. Unsightly pigeon poop is caked on several driveways, ledges, and roofs. One resident refuses to take any measures against the pigeons on her back deck unless the HOA board agrees to reimburse her. Another resident, who hates the birds, is afraid of destroying the nests on her back deck because they are filled with pigeon babies. Daily the adult pigeons and their fluffy offspring defecate on the deck, the house, and the driveway.

When the pigeon problem first began, Verna and I opted for a $7 solution. We bought a not scary scarecrow from the local crafts store and frightened the pigeons that’d begun congregating on our back deck.

All was well until two weeks ago. No longer could we just pound the glass on the back door and terrify the vulnerable pigeons. They started leaving piles of sticks as if they were hunkering down for the long haul.

The first time I saw the nest-to-be I grabbed it and flung the sticks over the railing. The next day the pile of sticks was back. I tossed them over the side of the deck again.

“Maybe you shouldn’t just throw them into the street,” said Verna, my sensible wife. “Put them in a bag and throw it into the garbage.”

I complied with my wife’s wishes and the sticks have not reappeared. But I am not going to let my guard down again and be lulled into a false sense of security. No, with an enemy as vicious and opportunistic as a pigeon I plan to utilize the most modern of resources, technology, and weaponry.

Shortly after the board voted to spend some money to address the pigeon problem but leave the responsibility on homeowners to fund any future issues, one of our neighbors installed fine mesh netting across his deck and a wooden barrier at the bottom.

His solution is relatively inexpensive and works. A few days ago, my father-in-law started taking measurements for our netting and wood. We are not afraid to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case, the nice guy from Armenia whose last name I cannot pronounce.

My wife helped me get rid of the sticks for now; my father-in-law will install the netting and wood; and we imitated our neighbor. Sometimes, birds of a feather need to flock together.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Keeping Up With the Joneses

So Miguel has asked us several times over the past year or so if he can have his own Facebook page.

“Why?” I’ve responded to our twelve-year old.

“Because everyone has one,” he has answered.

If ever there was a response designed to make a parent grab a child and scream, “Is that the best you can offer? So if all of your friends (fill-in the blanks) ‘jumped off the Golden Bridge’ or ‘robbed a bank’ or ‘sucked in massive quantities of tar and nicotine through their noses’…would you do the same?”

But I didn’t seize him by the neck and utter anything angry. I merely said, “Well, Miguel, Mommy and I don’t see the point. You’re not old enough yet.”

Believe me, I see the value in Facebook. I like reconnecting with old friends, sharing family photos, and learning a myriad of mundane details about all my friends’ personal lives—what so and so ate for breakfast, how the weather is at so and so’s mountain cabin, how so and so hates social media but uses social media to tell us, and how so and so coped while the spouse and kids were away all week.

I just don’t think Miguel needs to be rushed into that world before he is a teenager. Having a Facebook page is just adding another layer of less-than-personal brain numbing media to occupy his neurons when he should be engaging with the world, in my view, in healthier ways. Such as reading books, playing board games, babysitting at the park for his little sister, doing household chores, or tossing a baseball with his father? Oh, wait, Miguel already does all that.

And truth be told, there is some merit to the ‘because everyone has one’ argument. It’s the reason I begged my parents to buy me my first pair of white high-top Converse Chuck Taylor All-star sneakers when I was about 10 or 11.

For the most part, we all want to fit in and have that secret language or objects to share at work or school about something, anything, the latest news from American Idol, the raciest gossip about Tiger Woods, the newest fashion fad, etc. So I certainly want Miguel to feel included or cool or whatever someone poised to become a teenager needs to be to avoid hours of therapy (fat chance), blaming his parents for his social retardation (fatter chance), and becoming a ward of the state (fattest chance).

Fitting in is often good, but conformity sometimes exacts a high measure of revenge. I was picked on fairly often when I was in grade school, but I never shied away from attacking someone else when the target was Kathleen Nauss. I remember vividly on several of us taunted her mercilessly one day on the school bus, with the purely fictitious charge that she’d gone to the bathroom in her pants and stained her underwear, so she bolted one stop early, tears streaming down her face.

Years later, while we were in high school, she died in a car crash. In my simple view of the world back then, I looked at some of the rougher kids in her crowd, dangerous types with whom she sought solace after years of childhood abuse during school, kids who let her fit in, and blamed her associations with the ‘wild’ crowd and alcohol for her accident.

I could not have even told you who her friends in high school were, much less what they did for fun and to escape, but I blamed myself for being part of the cruel brigade that ‘forced’ Kathleen to choose delinquency and inclusion that led to her death.

Five or six years later, at our first high school reunion, I confessed my sins to another classmate, Dorothy L., who corrected me and said, “Kathleen wasn’t drinking and driving. Her car malfunctioned, something about the steering, and that caused the crash.”

I didn’t really breathe any easier. I still never got to apologize to her for willingly conforming to the mob and acting like everyone else.

Not that I shared any of this with Miguel.


I will save the story for another day. In the meantime, I was on Facebook last Friday, once again contributing to America’s massive decline in workplace productivity, when I plugged in my email address in order to see which of my contacts might have Facebook accounts. Lo and behold, there was a picture of Miguel Friedman, our son, clad in a Yankees t-shirt (which only heightened his crime) and smiling out at the world.

No, I said to myself, it can’t be. Miguel has a Facebook page after Verna and I expressly told him he could not yet have one?

Miguel was on vacation last week, which included four sleepovers, so he was actually at another friend’s house. I quickly placed the call.

“Hi Allison (not her real name), may I speak to Miguel?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled when he got on the phone.

“Miguel, what did Mommy and I say when you asked about getting a Facebook page?”


“And no means what?” I asked.


“So then tell me why I just came across your Facebook page? When did you do this?”

“At Aaron’s (not his real name) house a few nights ago. Can I keep it? I already have 75 friends.”

“Miguel, you got a page after we told you no.”

“Can we discuss it?” he pleaded.

“Yes, we’ll talk about it later. I’m going to have to tell Mommy.”

During the day I queried one of my co-workers, a father of two, including a young teenager, and one of the residents at the retirement community where we work, a woman in her 70s. I debated back and forth. I called Allison, at whose home Miguel was still enjoying the day—Monopoly, two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and baseball soccer on the front lawn (it involves a bat and a soccer ball). On one hand, I was inclined to let this one go. Miguel’s had to take on extra responsibility and control himself more as Verna’s chemo treatments have progressed. On the other hand, he went behind our backs and betrayed our trust.

Everyone I talked to agreed I had to terminate his Facebook page. I phoned Verna to make sure we were on the same, um, page. As a side note, Verna does not and will not ever have a Facebook page. She emails, surfs the Internet, and watches Netflix movies on her laptop. But she can’t be bothered with anything involving social media.

So after dinner, before Miguel settled in to watch the Giants baseball game, I said, “Miguel, you’re going to have to get rid of your Facebook page?”

“Why?” he asked.

After I explained our reasoning, he didn’t look upset, just resigned to the reality of our authority. “And if you can maintain our trust, we can re-visit you having a Facebook page when you are 13.”

It turns out that Facebook is as ubiquitous as fungus and right-wing talk radio (you just can’t get rid of the stuff once it spreads). With Miguel watching, I was only able to deactivate his account. He can resume it at anytime, after, presumably, he and his computer hacker buddies figure out how to hide his page from the public and overly curious parents.

On the car ride the next morning, I elaborated, “Miguel, Mommy and I have to able to trust you. What’s next? Are you going to drink and smoke behind our backs when you sleep at a friend’s house? Do we need to stop the sleepovers?”

I was half expecting in an overly optimistic parental way that he’d respond, “Dad, no need to worry, I don’t have to be like everyone else.”

But he’s not there yet and may never be. Time will tell us all how Miguel defines fitting in.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Strat-O-Matic Lives

Strat-O-Matic lives.

I received my first Strat-O-Matic game set for a bar mitzvah gift when I was 13. I played simulation baseball games with my dad and later a college friend, but mostly alone, for several years. I enjoyed the simulated competition and being thrust into the role of manager for teams from the 1971 baseball season.

Just in case you are wondering, according to the official website, “Strat-O-Matic produces sports-simulation games that rate real players and teams accurately for professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey, and college football.”

Somehow, in the various moves I made after college, the original Strat set did not survive. About 13 years ago, before we even had kids, I decided to buy another game replete with old timers’ teams from the 30s and 40s as well as some of my favorites from the 60s and 70s. The game gathered dust on top of our bedroom bookshelf and later in the garage until last winter.

That was when I decided to introduce Miguel to Strat. Even though many of today’s kids are addicted to videogames, X-boxes, Playstations, and all things instant stimuli media, Miguel loves all games and I thought this one might rope him in.

I was right.

Unlike other board games, Strat is largely based on the roll of the dice. Yes, the player cards do reflect actual statistics, so a world class hitter or pitcher has greater odds of “performing” well. But anyone can be a star at any given moment if the right numbers pop up. Call it game board egalitarianism.

Miguel and I decided to each select ten teams, play ten games per team, and then have playoffs and an inter-conference World Series. One each of our teams we drafted from a pool of Hall of Fame All-Stars.

Among the teams he chose were the 1927 New York Yankees, featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and called by some as one of the greatest offensive squads in baseball history. He also had the 1975 world champion Cincinnati Reds, 1920 Cleveland Indians, the 2007 Los Angeles Anaheim Angels, and the 1909 Detroit Tigers, which included otherworldly base stealer and inveterate racist Ty Cobb.

My Hall of Fame All Star team was pretty stacked. I had Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente on my bench and my team boasted pitchers Three Finger Brown, Kid Nichols, and Chief Bender and hitters Frank Baker, Jackie Robinson, and Heinie Manush. I had the 1924 Washington Senators and the 1905 New York Giants. I also picked the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox teams and learned an important lesson: it’s not always good to lead with your heart.

Those Red Sox squads may have won the World Series (and brought me unbridled joy), but their real world success does not always translate well in the chancier world of simulated baseball. They won a total of four or five games out of 20.

Miguel scored the most learning by acquiring knowledge about players from different eras. How many other twelve-year-olds know that the 1906 Cubs featured the great double-play combination of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Or that Mantle and Maris combined to hit nearly 120 homeruns in 1961? Or that several old time pitchers were virtually unhittable in the dead ball era?

Well, Miguel does, and more. I recently added the Negro Leagues All-Stars to our stable of players, and last week we each drafted three teams. Miguel is now familiar with Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Bullet Joe Rogan, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and nearly a hundred more men who were denied entrance to the major leagues solely on the basis of the color of their skin. I hope the six-team inclusion of Negro League stars will educate Miguel and increase his sensitivity to matters of race and tolerance.

And I think Strat is paying off. Over the weekend, the parent of one of Miguel’s friends said to me, “Miguel’s pretty smart. He was telling us all about all these old-time baseball players.”
So I explained to him that it was largely because of Strat. Then he asked for the website and said he might get the game.

“Kids just don’t play board games much these days,” he said, impressed by Miguel.

No, they don’t, I said. Miguel and I used to play Star Wars and Major League Baseball Monopoly, but he gave up on both games because he said I won too much. Hey, I may be a proud progressive-leftie-commie-rabble rouser, but plop me down in front of Monopoly and I turn into a blood-thirsty capitalist with enough cutthroat ambition to rival Vanderbilt, Trump, or Murdoch.

Anyway, we began our second season last night after we chose teams and assigned them to various divisions. Curiously, most of the players on one of Miguel’s Hall of Fame All-Star teams formerly played on my team, the team that won our inaugural World Series.

As we climbed to stairs to his room, he said, “You’re going down.”

“You’re going down,” I said.

The game pitted his other Hall of Fame All-Star squad with Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, and Joe DiMaggio against one of my Negro Leagues teams, with Satchel Paige, Bullet Joe Rogan, and Dizzy Dismukes.

Miguel’s team scorched mine, 11-3.

Strat-O-Matic Lives. Long live the games.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Farewell, Kind Sir

I said goodbye to Mr. W. last week. His breathing was labored and he snorted loudly as he inhaled, but he looked relatively peaceful as he lay in a coma. His fight against leukemia was winding down.

He died the next day.

But I am glad I got to see him before his death. I developed a fondness for him in the brief time I’d known him. He was one of the residents at the retirement facility where I work, one of six who died here in a seven-day period.

Everyone—staff, residents, families—was affected by the deaths, coming in such rapid succession, staccato bursts of intense pain straight to the heart.

Death is never a real surprise when you work at a place where the average age is 87. Everyone dies, and older people are just naturally at a greater risk for, well, a secession of life. But the deaths were and are still a shock to our systems.

So in the ten weeks I knew Mr. W., he touched my heart. Maybe it was because he was always so friendly and chivalrous. Maybe it was because he served our country in the Navy during WWII. Or maybe it was because two of his four dining tablemates were often cranky and downright pains in the ass, but he endured with a cherubic smile and a quiet sense of humor. Or maybe it was because he handled his impending demise with such grace and so little fanfare.

Maybe another reason why Mr. W.’s death also pricked me more deeply was because my wife has incurable cancer and I am very sensitive to matters of life and death.

Mr. W. had a strong pointed nose and large ears and wore sweaters that reminded you of Mr. Rogers. He always smiled in the folksy manner of Jimmy Stewart and his awe-shucks demeanor never wavered.

I didn’t meet him until early January, but at some point last year he announced to our executive director that he had cancer and he was going to die.

“I just wanted to let you know,” he said to the executive director, “that I have leukemia. I’m not going to do anything to fight it.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. W.,” the executive director responded.

“No, no, no,” he said, waving his arms. “I’m really OK with it. I’ve led a good life.”

The executive director checked in with Mr. W. regularly and in late December Mr. W. reported that he’d found solace in the wisdom of Norman Cousins.

“I heard somewhere about Norman Cousins,” Mr. W. explained. “He locked himself in a hotel room and watch funny movies, and laughter helped cure his life-threatening disease.

“I know this won’t cure me,” he added, “but I thought it was a great idea. So my kids set me up on Netflix, and now I have a queue. Let me know if you have any recommendations.”

The executive director suggested The Office, Blazing Saddles, and a few other knee-slapping, tear-inducing comedies.

Alas, the laughter did not cure Mr. W.—as he knew it wouldn’t—but brought him a measure of comfort during his final months of life.

I also checked in with Mr. W. at least 2-3 times a week after one of his daughters told me about a month ago that the end was near. I walked over to him when his family pushing him in a wheelchair a few weeks ago.

“Mr. W., just let me know what I can do for you,” I said. He clearly didn’t want to be a bother or have anyone fuss over him.

“No, no, no, that’s OK. Everything’s OK,” he said.

“What about meals? Can we send you up some trays?” We generally do not charge people for trays of food or guest meals during times of crisis.

“Actually we’re taking him out to shop for food,” said his daughter. “Peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches. One of his favorites.”

A few days after Mr. W. died, a group of residents asked if we could shuttle them to his funeral. I volunteered to attend the ceremony as well. It was held at St. Raphael’s, the parish church he and his late wife had attended for many years.

During the mass, I found out that Mr. W. and his wife were devout Catholics, active in the church, and members of the Catholic Daughters. His faith, the priest said, was an active kind, exemplified by his dedication to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, an organization that helps the needy with food, clothing, shelter, and other material assistance.

When Mr. W. moved into our retirement facility, which is located in another parish, he met with St. Raphael’s leading priest, Father Rossi.

“Father,” Mr. W. said, “I’m moving to Drake Terrace, which is out of the parish. But will it still be OK for me to attend St. Raphael’s?”

Mr. W. attended his home church for a few years, volunteered in the community, and greeted parishioners in the lobby. Then his retirement facility started shuttling residents to a church in the neighborhood. Mr. W. was back in the office of Father Rossi.

“Father, would it be OK if started going to St. Isabella’s?” Mr. W. asked.

“Yes, it would,” the Father said simply. “It doesn’t matter where you worship. You’ll always have a home at St. Raphael’s.”

Father Rossi concluded his remarks and said Mr. W. embodied the values and spirit of Christ and touched everyone with his compassion, humility, and sense of service to others.

One of Mr. W.’s four children, Steven, spoke haltingly, tears welling in his eyes, and thanked everyone for helping to celebrate the life of such a great and devout man. Tears flowed freely throughout the sanctuary.

I didn’t actually say goodbye to Mr. W. His caregiver invited me to his room as she left for the day. She had tears in her eyes for she knew Mr. W. was almost gone. She said, “Go on up and say goodbye.”

One of Mr. W.’s daughters was there. We hugged and I asked her how else we could help or if she needed any food. Just like her dad, she said she fine and everything was OK. Her eyes were red but she seemed serene.

But I didn’t say goodbye because Mr. W. was in a coma. I poked my head into his room and watched him breath and listened to the music his daughter had playing.

“He so loved his Gregorian chants,” she said with an impish grin.

Goodbye Mr. W. Rest in peace.