Six Christmases

My holiday memories are dominated by my six Christmases in Westord, Mass –my parents’ hometown. We only ended up there because of some twists of fate.

My father planned to retire from the Navy in the mid 1960’s and the intent was to move to Florida at that time. However, in one week my brother and mother were both hospitalized with critical illnesses, thus my father re-enlisted. Eventually he retired and we moved to Westford only because my uncle had a house to rent us.

In Westford, I lived within a few miles of my father’s family, and few dozen miles of my mother’s family. And there were snow-covered maples and evergreens, the way that sitcoms and holiday cartoons suggested that Christmas was meant to be.

Without those family hospitalizations my holiday memories would be of Christmas in a ranch house with a grassy ground and a palm tree in the front yard (a nightmare holiday scenario that was eventually realized when we moved to the Orlando area when I was a teenager).

Is it wrong that every holiday season, that I am grateful for my mother’s blood clot and my brother’s ruptured appendix?

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“I Need to Beat Traffic”

I normally don’t comment on the guilt or innocence of individuals who have been charged with a crime, or seemingly should be charged with a crime. I have  claimed the “I wasn’t there” defense for decades. In a post about one high-profile case--involving the Trayvon Martin shooting I focused on the demise of critical thinking and the rise of cut-and-paste journalism, rather than on the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman.

I have my own opinions on that case, I don’t pretend that they are facts.

I wasn’t there.

When Eric Garner died last summer, I wasn’t  there either. Thus I didn’t make any judgement on the guilt or innocence of Daniel Pantaleo.

Until this morning.

Last summer, I watched video of Eric Garner’s arrest and subsequent death in the presence of several police officers and emergency services resources.  I saw that there was a rather noticeable edit in the footage before the choke hold was applied.

I didn’t know if the editor’s intent was to bypass some repetitive dialogue between Garner and the law enforcement officers, or if the edits were hiding some threatening behavior from Garner. I presumed it was the latter.

Still I could not envision any circumstances that would warrant the application of the chokehold or to ignore Garners claims of “I can’t breathe.” Even if Garner had taken a threatening action against the two officers, I figured that there would be punishment for the officer that applied the hold.

This morning, I found a story, with an interview of Ramsey Orta, Garner’s friend who shot the video of Garner’s encounter with police.

This version of Orta’s video, in the article does have an edit–at about 1:15–though I think it’s clear that the only thing that’s remotely threatening about Garner is his size. There’s nothing illegal about that. And it certainly doesn’t warrant actions by the police officers.

One thing that is especially disturbing is how methodically, and emotionally detached the two officers seem as they move in on Garner when their backup arrives.

Still the grand jury hearing the case against the officer who applied the chokehold could not find probable cause. This case seem rather low in ambiguity. Abundant harm no foul.  #99 got away with one.

I have had some level of distrust of the legal system, since serving on a jury many years ago.  It was a whiplash case in which the plaintiff was suing two men in the chain of traffic collisions. It was tedious and bothersome for several reasons. But, I figured we owed it to the two defendants to make an objective decision. These two weren’t facing jail, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement money. It was clear (to me anyway) that only one of the young men should face consequences.

During the deliberations there was moment that made me quesy: when a fellow juror said, “Well I think he’s guilty, but I am going to say ‘not guilty’  so we can get this over, because I made dinner plans tonight and I need to beat traffic.”

I concluded, right then, right there that I did not ever want my fate to rest in the hands of a citizen jury. Still, after all these years, I was still naive enough to hope that when the stakes were high that the jury would rise to the occasion and make informed, deliberate rulings.

Several years later, I met a lawyer  who was involved in The Innocence Project. I described my experience as a juror, specifically the “…beat traffic…” comment. She told me that I might, or might not, be surprised about how many people try to hasten the deliberation in felony murder cases so they  can beat traffic.

As if I needed more reasons to distrust the legal system. I figured my opinion the system couldn’t sink any lower.

Then, last night, the  grand jury in the Eric Garner case did not find probable cause to indict the officer, made me lose the last shred of faith that I had in justice system.

I can’t change what happened last night. Though my message the members of the grand jury in the Eric Garner case: “I hope you got stuck in traffic.”

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Job Creator

I never envisioned a future where I would live in a house where pots were never dirtied, but I was certain that I would one day achieve a “paperless” newspaper. I longed for that time, when I could reduce my clutter by just a bit.

I used to love the ritual of  spreading out the morning paper (The Gainesville Sun, The Tallahassee Democrat, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune) on my table next to my first cup of coffee and poring over the local and national headlines. When I lived in DC, then Chicago, there was the added bliss of being able to read the entire paper on the Metro, or CTA as I commuted into work.

In recent years the paper seemed to have  become more of burden due to its ability to contribute  clutter to my home. Perhaps that is a sign that I have reached curmudgeon-hood.

We moved to Grand Rapids 15 years ago. This city is  roughly the size of Gainesville or Tallahassee, but one the things that made it feel small to me was that the local paper was delivered in the afternoon rather than in the morning. Much like when I was growing up and lived in towns where “The Lowell Sun” was delivered by a “paper boy” at around 4 pm. It was usually a kid that went to school with my older sister, later they were kids that went to school with me. I always knew their names.

For a time in Grand Rapids we had an actual “paper boy.” A kid about 11  that actually biked from house to house for his deliveries. And we knew his name: Cortez. I liked that feeling of knowing the paper boy, if only for the nostalgic feeling.

Job Creator

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of different people–kids, adults, groups of people–delivering the daily copies of  The Grand Rapids Press. I am not sure if they are related to, or even acquainted with Cortez (who’s probably in his mid-20’s now), but they have always been reliable, and though we don’t see them all that often, they are always friendly.

A couple of years ago, The Press changed its model due to decline in subscriptions. It was announced that the home deliveries would be cut back to Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

An electronic edition would be available seven days a week. There was an option–with a slight discount– to forgo home delivery altogether. I was ecstatic at the idea of going paperless and the opportunity to reduce my  clutter. This seemed like a no-brainer.

Then I began think about the folks who deliver the Press. They were taking a big hit from the forced reduction from seven delivery days to three.

Despite my decades-long ambition to go paperless, and all the merits of digital content (scalable, searchable and NO CLUTTER) I chose to go  with the thrice-weekly deliveries on the possibility that I might help to preserve some jobs.

Now that the digital edition is available, I found that I rarely read the paper copy.  The hard copies get put other uses: cleaning windows, etc. but they aren’t actually read that often.

Recently, my wife and I have been making some efforts to reduce costs. A few weeks ago we cut our cable TV service and few other recurring bills. I looked at the option of cutting out the home delivery of the Press.

Last week I was seriously considering this when I happened to walk out to my car just as the Press delivery crew pulled up to my driveway. They were in a minivan with the side door open. There was a driver and two other people, one handing bundled newspaper copies  to an elderly man sitting in the back seat.

He pulled his arm back to toss it on my lawn and I yelled, “I’m open.”

This man, with a resemblance to Morgan Freeman, and a voice to match, called back “Oh, I’m going to have to get out the car for that.”  He did.  Then he struck a Joe Montana throwing pose and hurled the paper to me.  It was a pretty accurate throw, but I contorted my body to make it look like a difficult catch.

I shouted “Yes!” and performed a celebratory touchdown dance.

He hollered “Sweet catch, boss. The Lions had better pay you some good money this year. I’ll see you Thursday.” (Don’t tell me that you’ll get that kind of customer experience with your iPad.)

“Boss?” I thought. “No, I’m merely a job creator.” And in this case happy to pay for something that I don’t really need.






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Windy Smitty

On this day, the first day of Summer, I can’t help but reflect on a decision I made in my past. At an age, when I felt invincible. 

If nothing else, let my story serve as a reminder on the importance of bicycle safety. I have to live with my poor choice, it’s not too late for you to save yourselves.

It was on, or around the Summer Solstice in 1994 that I decided to hop on my bike while my head was still sopping wet from the shower. The weather was gorgeous, and I couldn’t wait to get out the door.

I shot a fleeting glance at my bike helmet and chose to leave it on the bookcase. That was a decision that would alter my life forever.

I was heading to Jackson Park, about 9 miles to the south, when I stopped at the Lincoln Park Zoo to use the bathroom. I saw my reflection in the mirror, my hair was no longer wet, thanks to the wind-whipping along Lake Michigan. I drizzled some water on my mane hoping it would lie down a bit.

I walked my bike around the Zoo alternately looking at animals, and the Chicago skyline.

A group of workers inched up behind me in a golf cart. One said, “Excuse me, sir can we get around you?”

I moved over to the right and he had enough room to pass, and said, “Thank you, sir have a great day.”

Before I could respond he added, “Nice Michael Douglas hair, you got there.”

Then his workmate contributed, “Man, you got yourself a Michael Douglas chin, too.”

A third man said, “He sure does. He’s got the hair and the damn chin, too. How are those Streets of San Francisco treating you my friend?”

They chortled as I hopped on my bike. The second man spoke again: “Say hi to Karl Malden.”

“Michael Douglas Hair.” Twenty years later, their words, these caustic words still haunt me. How could anybody be so cruel?

Don’t let this happen to you or your children, please wear a bike helmet.

For God’s sake, protect your hair!

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My Favorite Things

It was a wickedly cold morning just like this when I walked a few blocks from my Ravenswood apartment, and was fortunate that there was a 145 bus, idling in the lot, awaiting its departure time. I don’t remember what was ahead for me at work that day, but my job at the time rather tedious–making truck parts fliers for a ad agency–so it wasn’t that different than the day before.

The driver saw me shivering outside and was kind enough to let me in before his run though it was technically against CTA policy.

As I sat down he offered this sinister warning: “You can stay on this bus as long as you don’t tell anybody what you’re about see or hear.” Then “You got that?”

I nodded then put proceeded to unfold my copy of The Chicago Tribune.

With that he pulled a hard plastic case from the floor to his lap. When he opened the case and started to assemble its components, I saw the glistening of the metallic shaft he had in his hand.

I screamed with every fiber of my being, “My God, he has a flute!!!!”

Then he glanced over his should placed his piece near his lips and played “Take Five” and then “My Favorite Things.”

My winter morning commutes are rarely that appealing nowadays. Now they begin with scraping ice from the windows and many days digging out after being plowed in. There’s never a walk through the brisk cold, with some chance encounters with neighbors, or strangers, or a bit of window-shopping. Those things all put a spring in my step, at least until I began the bone-dissolving work of staring at line-art rendering of spark plugs, oil filters, and mud flaps.

Though at the particular morning, the unexpected jazz performance set the tone my entire day. It wasn’t just the music, it was the serendipity. I wish there were a way that I could plan serendipitous events. They would involve more flutes and fewer cars.

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Wishing You a Safe and Joyous Black Friday Eve

I have no plans to shop on Thanksgiving Day, or Friday, nor do I want anybody to work on Thanksgiving Day. However, I find that the outrage over some retailers’ decisions to be open on Thanksgiving Day more than a little contrived. People have always worked “non-essential” jobs on Thanksgiving. They will again this year and next year.

It’s amusing that media and some consumers are taking umbrage with the fact that Target, Best Buy and others will be open next Thursday. Yet people have had no qualms about going to a grocery store, gas station, theater, McDonalds….or purchasing from Amazon, or iTunes on previous Thanksgivings.

Has anybody ever protested the fact that the Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys are forced to play football on Thanksgiving Day? Probably not, because their freakin’ rich. Though there are hundreds of concession workers, security officers, parking lot attendants, who are compensated far less handsomely than the players. They are compelled to be away from their families on Thanksgiving Day. Has anybody ever championed their cause?

I don’t suspect that there much outcry when I had to wash dishes, or stock the salad bar, at Skeeter’s Breakfast House. Management always predicted a rush of Thankgiving diners. There never was. There was usually about 20 customers each Thanksgiving that I worked, most of them were visiting professors from other countries and their families. The wait staff didn’t see much in the way in tips when they worked Thanksgiving, so they made just a shade over what we called “waitress minimum” which was $2/hour at the time. Where there protests?

I do feel sorry for the employees at these retail chains that have work on Thanksgiving. But not any sorrier for the wait staff, toll-takers, or flight attendants that will be working and have always worked on Thanksgiving.

I don’t fault the retailers who starting are Black Friday on Thursday for doing so. If these stores have good numbers they’ll repeat it next year, if the numbers are weak, they may or may not. I like to think if I were a decision maker in a retail chain that all stores would be closed.

Nothing is forcing the customers to visit these stores, during the holiday weekend, or in some cases to camp out in frigid conditions to be “first.” While shopping in general is unappealing, shopping amongst a ravenous crowd of deal-seekers suits neither my habit or my health.

If you shop on Thanksgiving, or the following day, that’s your choice, but you should pause for a moment to remember Walter Vance and Jdimytai Damour.

Perhaps the fourth Thursday in November that currently know as Thankgiving will one day be known as Black Friday Eve or perhaps Navy Blue Thursday.

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I See Dead People’s Status Updates (and they like Samsung, NPR, The NRA, Amazon…)

Since making the plunge into Facebook a few years ago, I have had three of my Facebook friends die. Two were good friends, one primarily a Facebook friend. Heart attack, accident, heart attack.

They all died prematurely and their deaths were made more tragic in that all left young children behind.

One was a good friend in high school, and teammate on the football team. I saw him a few times in the five or so years after we had graduated,  then at the class reunions I attended. We chatted quite a bit on Facebook in the beginning and a couple of times on the phone. He made some informal  plans about bringing his bicycle to Michigan, with special interest in trails on the east of the of the state,  so that he could claim to have been to Hell and back.

One was a good friend in Grand Rapids, with whom I worked (at two companies) for a total of about 5 years. He was my go-to-guy for sushi lunches in the area. He was a great sax player, and he knew a lot about a lot of things and I think he was chronically underutilized in his work.

The third was somebody I had some classes with in high school and I think I had seen once or twice in the years since. I was actually getting rather tired of some of his extreme views on Facebook and didn’t have that much interaction with him.

I’ve always known that friends of mine (from towns I lived in 40, 30, 15 years ago…) would die and never really thought about it how I might learn of their passing. Prior to my entry into the cyber world (15+ years ago), people that I knew have died. I usually heard about their passing from my family members or mutual co-workers and classmates.

When my friend (and Facebook friend), Julio died, a mutual friend from high school sent me a message of his passing. His Facebook wall was busy for several weeks afterwards as friends and his extended family paid their respects.

His daughter was providing updates on his wall, and still occassionally does, three years later.  It was a little freaky at first when I started to get these updates in my newsfeed from Julio.  They were in the 3rd person; it reminded me of the way that over-indulged athletes (and Bob Dole) speak about themselves. It seemed a little less freaky as time went on.

About a year later, another friend’s wife, sent me a friend request. I didn’t know her that well, but I had no reason to deny her friend request. I found out she had friended me specifically to inform me that he had died. She didn’t know of another way to reach me. (you may have noticed I have a rather ordinary name, there is usually more than one Scott Smith in the local phone books ).

More recently, a high school acquaintance who had friended me in Facebook went in to the hospital for routine surgery, I didn’t notice any updates about his status in my feed, so I went to his Facebook wall and saw some updates from his wife. She had tagged him in her updates so her status posts were showing on his wall. I saw several updates that afternoon. I was stunned to learned that he had died in the hospital.

There are occasional updates from his FB wall as his wife tags him in an update of her own. What’s bizarre (though understandable) is when he gets tagged by someone wishing him happy birthday, or to ask how his job is going.

The status updates in my feed from my dead friends feel somewhat normal now. Though the fact that they still “like” stuff from the afterlife is a little harder to stomach.

If a product, or organizational page has an update and they had once “Liked” the page then Facebook informs me of this.

To see that a dead friend “Likes” Amazon, or NPR , or the NRA, or the Miami Dolphins still seems a little bit peculiar, even though I understand that in Facebook’s quest to demonstrate a business model that “Likes” are very important.

Facebook doesn’t know when people are dead . Perhaps if they did the “like” would be in the past tense, such as: “John Doe ‘liked ‘ Disney World” (OK that would be creepy).

Frankly , I doubt that Amazon, NPR, the NRA or the Miami Dolphins really care if they are liked by living, or dead people as long as they’re liked.

I have noticed (with admittedly few data points) that people who liked Samsung seem to die at a faster rate than the general population.

I ponder whether it’s gauche to unfriend dead friends. And whether it’s polite to refer to your dead friends as ‘data points’ for that matter.

Subtle product endorsements from dead friends, I suppose, are part of this brave new world in which we live. Perhaps Facebook Likes will be included in our eulogies and epitaphs: “Devoted Husband, Loving Father, Who Liked The Wizard of Oz, Trail Biking and Papa John’s Pizza…..”

Times change and so must I. Though I’m not sure how I’ll take it the first time that a dead friend Pokes me.

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The Blue Swede cover of this song was among my favorites as a young ‘un. This -a cover of the Blue Swede cover- is among my favorite recent YouTube discoveries.

In rose-colored reflections of my past it seems that the world today is suffering from a chronic deficiency of Ooga-Chaka.

That guy brings his A-game.



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National Signing Day

In reading some of the news regarding “National Signing Day” I recalled my own storied prep career. Here is what the scouting reports said about me back in the day:

“Smith anchored the offensive line on a team that went 5-5 during the regular season (when we say ‘anchored’ we mean he really dragged it down). During his senior year, Smith set a national (possibly international) record for offsides penalties. A review of games films show that Smith had exactly zero pancake-blocks; however Smith is rather fond of pancakes and played with blocks as a child.

Smith stands over 5′ 11″ (in cleats) and tips the scales at 160 (when he’s fully clothed, and has a couple of rocks in his pockets). He reportedly can bench press his IQ (which is believed to be 3 digits, as evidenced by a GPA that approaches 2.0 ).

Smith’s physcial attributes have many likening him to legendary prep lineman of the past. One scout remarked: “This kid has the speed of Meat Loaf combined with the size, strength and scruples of Richard Nixon. I’ve never seen anything like him.”

He’s has been tagged as a “can’t miss” prospect as a busboy or a prep cook in college, though some scouts suggest that he has the tools to go both ways.

Smith is part of a large family in which he is described as “The fifth of six accidents,” by his mother.

In his spare time, Smith goes to great lengths to avoid homework, and squanders copious amounts of his youth in the Burger King parking lot (along the Zayre’s wall) and is an aspiring mall rat.”



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In 2013, Let’s Resolve To Share The Blame And Stay Mad

I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions. When people ask me about my resolutions, I usually respond with “I am going to GAIN 20 lbs and START smoking.”  Some years I actually achieve the first goal, though not really willing to pursue the latter one.

However,  following the insipid, melodramatic, deceitful, sinfully-expensive, US presidential election that has segued into the resumption of partisan brinksmanship over a budget deal (or lack thereof),  I have been mad a lot in the past few months. Thus, I am making a New Year’s resolution.

For 2013, I resolve to stay mad. Anybody else?

I get mad that people don’t get madder about things or that they don’t stay mad at some things. Currently I’m mad that not many people seem to be all that mad about the looming Fiscal Cliff.

The Fiscal Cliff is not only a synthetic crisis, it is a LEGISLATED synthetic crisis. The Budget Control Act was approved by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by our incumbent, and next, President. IN AUGUST…..2011.

Rather than specifically addressing any fiscal solutions at the time, the bill allowed for several months of kicking the can down the road.  Primarily, so Congress and POTUS could campaign uninterrupted for three months.

Can I get a “WTF?”

After Election Day, the only thing that Congress could agree on was to continue its long-standing habit of  short work weeks.

A Double-WTF? would be appropriate here.

I’m mad that people keep blaming the lawmakers for everything, without blaming the enablers of the environment in which lawmakers operate. Voters and non-voters (adults) need to start accepting their share of blame for allowing these do-nothing practices and the constant influx of corrupting influences.

Many of them— laws written by lobbyists, permanent campaign cycles, the filibuster–are not addressed in the Constitution, thus wouldn’t be all that difficult to reform. Though they won’t ever be reformed as long as enough people don’t stay mad enough.

And don’t get me started about the Electoral College and the primaries….

OK, I got myself started. Why is it acceptable that an incumbent president and other elected officals (those campaigning for/against the incumbent POTUS) can make multiple trips to Ohio, Florida etc. in a week, while resolution of a forthcoming budget crisis is put on a back burner (Nay, put in the freezer)?

Does your job allow you to travel across the country several times a month when your sole objective is to get your next job? Or to help your friends get a new job? Without knowing your profession, I can conclude that the answer is no. Yet, this is  precisely the behavior we are enabling  when we allow the POTUS, or a sitting Senator,  to travel to upstate New York (New Mexico, Kansas), to campaign for a candidate there.

The root word of “president” is “preside.” The root of “representative” is “represent.”  Why do these elected officials go off for days/weeks on the campaign trail instead of presiding and representing?

Because, they can. Because we, the people, have allowed them to do so for generations.

If enough people  don’t get mad enough, and stay mad enough, these lawmakers will continue to be derelict in their duties. Forthcoming elections and budget standoff will  make the recents ones seem civil in comparison.

The shrill ( or ALL CAPS on Internet commentary) calls to “Fire them all!” are silly.  If we had voted out the president and unpalatable members of Congress in the last election, they’d still be in office today. They will be until next month. No election outcomes would have changed the current fiscal cliff follies.

I’m mad that people keep assigning blame solely to Republicans or solely to Democrats. Both parties brought us here. Republicans and Democrats are the same shit served with a different spoon.

The pendulous patterns of voting one party out and the other party in are pointless. Freshman Congressmen  are just shiny new cogs in a broken machine. Until the machine is repaired, we are doomed to periodically voting out the  Curlys and replacing them with Shemps.

If we go over the fiscal cliff, and there is a resulting economic calamity, we (the elected officials, the voters and the non-voters, the taxpayers, the tax-exempt…) will get what we deserve.

My advice to voters/non-voters is this:  take your share of the blame and stay mad.

If you disagree, then filibuster me.

See you on the other side.

January 2nd 2013  Update--A “solution” has been reached by POTUS and Congress. Essentially the bill raises taxes without addressing spending cuts. Furthermore, it does nothing about the looming debt ceiling and delays any action on budget sequestration, (which would have required across-the-board budget cuts) for two months. Thus we’ve ensured that we’ll have another two or three similar budgetary goat rodeos in the Capitol in the coming months.

Essentially, after about 1.5 years of procrastination, and end-of-the-year that was completely contrived very little has been accomplished.

Are you staying mad?

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