Do You Hear What I Hear?

The ad called for “People of good will and a Christmas spirit to join a caroling group, talent not important. I thought I’d fit right in.

But on the first rehearsal night when I was just warming up, they adjourned in mid-Tannenbaum and became evasive when I asked about the next meeting date. “Our plans are indefinite,” they said. “We might disband.”

“I don’t understand, ” I said. “Everyone was so enthusiastic and then we sing one carol and we might disband?” There was a lot of hemming and hawing about a city noise ordinance and then old Mrs. Higginbottom, our leader, asked me, “Would you classify yourself as a baritone, or a bass or, or …. what?”

“It varies, Mrs. Higginbottom. My voice teacher said I sometimes go from basso profundo to soprano on the same note.”

“You have a voice teacher? !”

“I did until her sudden early retirement, but what has that got to do with our disbanding?”

They all looked at Mrs. Higginbottom as she nervously twisted her tuning fork. “We find it difficult to work with your rather….er….unusual singing voice. Would you be interested in another part, like….like humming. We really could use a talented hummer.”

“Never could master that. Can’t whistle or play the kazoo either.”

I arrived ten minutes early at the next rehearsal, surprised to hear them in full swing. So I jumped right into the fa la la’s of “Deck the Halls” until I noticed I was singing a solo. I realized then the reason they’d stopped was that Mrs. Higginbottom had fainted and fallen into the piano. Another cancelled rehearsal and with Christmas just around the corner!

I received no more practice notices and began to think our little chorale was finished when I saw a tiny newspaper notice. The Higginbottom Carolers would be strolling that very night!

I caught up with them on Halsey Avenue singing “Good King Wenceslas” to smiling families standing on their front porches. I joined right in and at first thought we had a bass drum accompaniment, but soon realized the percussion sounds were caused by doors slamming. I was surprised to see when I looked around that Mrs. Higginbottom and the others were leaving, actually running down the road.

I decided to strike out alone, found a nice quiet neighborhood and began an emotional rendition of one of my favorite carols, “Silent Night”. I was just into the second chorus when I was interrupted by the arrival of several police cars.

I never found out what all the commotion was about with people running from their houses, dogs howling and policemen flashing lights around. Some said they’d heard the pitiful screams of a wounded animal. Others speculated it might have been a landscaper on a late leaf-blowing job or running his shredder, or both.

“Officer, you shouldn’t have used your siren. You frightened away whatever it was,” a woman complained.

“Ma’am, we didn’t use our sirens.”

“But I distincly heard a siren,” she replied. “In fact, I remember thinking it was off key.”

THE YULETIDE CHALLENGE

The most dangerous party is not the Communist Party. It is the office Christmas party. The Communist Party merely wants to rule the world, but the office Christmas party creates chaos, organizational upheaval, dyspepsia and, frequently, unemployment.

Last year’s Yuletide bash at the Whimsey Widget Company contained two typically volatile ingredients. First, there was the pretension of a democratic camaraderie in a group accustomed to a stringent caste system. When the second ingredient, alcohol, was added, the results were staggering.

Festivities began with a merry speech by Vice President Cuthbert Mainchance. In his rare appearances at the office, Mr. Mainchance usually acknowledges underling employees with a regal nod. But tonight he is a jolly elf calling out mostly inaccurate first-name greetings.

As the revelers smile politely at Mr. Mainchance’s feeble attempts at drollery, they reflect on his energetic rise to the top: how he had the forsight to befriend President Whimsey and the courage to marry his aging daughter. To say there is a warm feeling in breast of each employee for Mr. Mainchance would be an understatement. It is much warmer than warm. It resembles heartburn.

Mr. Mainchance does not now speak of boring business details. This is, after all, a holiday party and besides, he knows very little about the business and is not entirely sure what the company makes, but he knows, to the penny, what he makes.

He praises key employees like Simon Hartless, the office manager who he says “treats his staff like his own family.” Everyone nods agreement. Mr. Hartless’ family ran away several years ago.

There is also a polite bow to old Mr. Coote of accounting who has been with Whimsey Widgets longer than anyone can remember, including Mr. Coote.

Newcomers are welcomed and, Mr. Mainchance said, must be embraced into the bosom of the organization. The most recent hiree is young Miss Zowie, a stenographer. Two boys from the shipping department attempt to carry out the vice president’s order and are restrained by the security staff.

After yet another of the V.P.’s “in conclusions”, the audience gradually wanders off to the buffet table where there is a divided opinion on the quality. Some say it’s not as good as last year’s. Others maintain it’s comprised mostly of last year’s leftovers.

But the drinks are fresh and, according to Miss Zowie, so are the shipping department boys. She has locked herself in the ladies room. After his third Manhattan, Mr. Coote, who hardly ever speaks to anyone, is loudly muttering about a planned Caribbean trip just before the next audit.

Miss Zowie has accidentally set off the burglar alarm while climbing out the ladies room window. A police squad has burst into the building and is slipping and sliding on outdated hors d’ouevres. Cuthbert Mainchance, resenting the intrusion, stares down the intruders and turns once more to the few remaining bleary-eyed employees. He begins: “And in conclusion…..”


ANCIENT ACCOUNTS

This generation often expects too much accuracy from its Dad’s and Grandad’s yarns, especially from those of us with exaggerated memories of our youthful athletic episodes. Very often our tales are not perfectly true accounts of what happened, but what we storytellers believe should have happened.

Why not just let us ramble on with our edited versions of our “Golden Moments” like hitting the game-winning homer (If it hadn’t been thwarted by the umpire’s questionable shout of “Foul ball”!}

My “Winning touchdown account” is mostly accurate. I’m quite sure my left tackle’s block cleared the path to the goal line for our victorious ball carrier. All of that is true, but, admittedly, my account lacks complete details.

As the clock ticked off the tie game’s final seconds, I was hoping to stop one of the charging opponents between my galloping fullback and the goal line. But then I tripped on a loose shoelace and became a horizontal projectile. Three bulking enemy linemen stumbled and fell over me as the ball carrier zipped by and was later carried off the field as a conquering hero.

I was also carried off the field, semi-conscious and with a lot of footprints on the back of my jersey. The old “Gridirony” poem tells the story: “The lowly, hardworking tackle….rarely gets the glory that the fullback’ll.”

My embellished accounts can’t easily be challenged now because most of my old teammates are either living in Florida nursing homes or playing in the Pearly
Gates League.

PAINFUL BYTES

Browsing through an old diary this week, I was reminded of the extremely troublesome learning experience I endured with my fellow office workers in the 1980’s. We did not all survive.

One black day, a Ms. Grindstone from company headquarters arrived to train us on the shiny new personal computers and other strange contraptions which Mr. Trubble, our office manager, had installed on our desks.

Ms. Grindstone was a rather tall, gangling, middle-aged woman with bleached hair. I could tell it was bleached because her mustache was slightly darker.

“Personal computers are amazingly simple,” she began and then launched into a rapid-fire lecture peppered with obscurities like Fortran, microchips, data banks, ROM, RAM and megabytes. We listened with mouths agape.

After two mind-boggling hours, Ms. Grindstone conceded, “You were probably unable to absorb every bit of the material, but it’s all there in your instruction books.” Then she left. Joe Duffy in the shipping department claimed it was on a broomstick off the loading dock.

I could tell Ms. Grindstone had followed the instruction book faithfully because her presentation and the book were equally incomprehensible. We were not comforted by the claim in the opening chapter that our computers were “user friendly”.

I soon started entering a routine engineering project report I’d always been able to type in two hours including a coffee break. Two days later I had an almost intelligible document on the screen. But how would I get it printed?

With the help of fellow workers I was able to decipher the instruction book’s 22-step process. I made the final button push at around 3 p.m. and was happy to see my words appearing on the emerging pages. It was almost 5 p.m. when we managed to stop the printer. By then I was standing ankle-deep in copies.

The very next day, old Mr. Hubschman in Personnel, lost touch with reality and threw his stapler into the computer screen, shouting, “It was you or me CRT!” He continued to shout that as they led him out to the ambulance.

A few days later Mrs. Whitney in Billing also slipped into the loony mode after leaving a floppy disk too close to her telephone. Her six-day project was erased. They found her with her arms around the disk drive, weeping uncontrollably. The diagnosis was acute cyberphobia.

The situation became critical. Absenteeism soared and morale plummeted. The usual flood of reports and forecasts had been reduced to a mostly garbled trickle. One statement on budgets consisted mostly of asterisks and question marks. A 650-word analysis of planned projects was completely unintelligible because the computer insisted on having it all printed on one line.

Management called an emergency meeting. A vice president began by suggesting we get Ms. Grindstone back. This was met with a loud, raucous and rather profane response. “We can’t go back to the old ways,” he pleaded. “We’ll be left in the dust!”

It was Ms. Brock, head of the steno section, who saved the day with a suggestion that made sense to every oldtimer and most of the newtimers in the audience. It was immediately adopted by an overwhelming vote.

The following week, the company hired about 50 part-timers who happened to be the teen-aged children and grandchildren of employees. These “consultants” left their lawn mowing and baby-sitting jobs to sit beside their parents and grandparents to teach them the facts of computer life. And we worked happily ever aft9@. Well, almost.

TRAPDOORITUS

I’m sure Medicare covers brain surgery, but I don’t want to submit to it until I’m convinced there is a proven surgical procedure to correct what I call “Trapdooritus” (TDI).

I’ve suffered with this affliction for many years. According to Google’s med sources, it might be based in the cerebellum section of my brain where a faulty trapdoor-like gray matter section springs open to immediately leak out important information that I am receiving. The only evidence I have of this is the loud “KLONK” sound I hear when I’m supposed to be memorizing someone’s recitation of important information.

I once greeted a new neighbor when I met him on our street and said, “Welcome to the neighborhood. My name’s Gene.” He smiled, we shook hands, and he said, “Glad to meet you, Gene. My name’s (KLONK).”

(I can forget a name or any other important item in an instant, or even in half an instant. ) “I didn’t quite catch your name,” I said.

He smiled and repeated his name. “(KLONK)”. It must have been an unusual name, because he spelled it. ” (KLONK-KLONK-KLONK-KLONK)”.

I got up early the next morning, peeked in his curbside mailbox and quickly wrote down his name inside my jacket where I could retrieve it quickly. That afternoon there was an unfortunate incident when I introduced him to another neighbor as “Londonfog”.

Taking verbal directions is almost impossible for TDI victims. I’ve driven several GPS robots to the brink of cyber crashes and may have altered the paths of their orbiting satellites. My best bet is getting directions the old-fashioned way, but it’s still a big gamble.

One morning I pulled up to the curb in Manhattan and leaned out to ask a policeman directions to an uptown office building. He began to politely and precisely recite the “simple” route.

“You’re really almost there,” he said. Just drive down (KLONK) street and get on the (KLONK) Drive. Follow that north to the (KLONK) Avenue exit and take that (KLONK) and a half miles east until you come to a big (KLONK). Turn (KLONK) there onto (KLONK) Plaza and you’ll soon see the building on your (KLONK). You can’t miss it.”

I thanked him and hoped I was headed in the right direction when I drove off. Late that afternoon I was rescued by forest rangers in deep woods just north of Yonkers.

A Brief History of Ice Cream

Ice cream has been on the world’s menu in one form or another for almost 2,500 years. It would have been enjoyed even earlier if one important ingredient was easier to come by.

That would be ice. Ancient Romans had to send swift runners up into the Apennines to fetch snow and ice for the dessert that crowned their feasts.

In the second century A.D., Persians were freezing water overnight in the desert and running the ice back into their downtown ice cream parlors at dawn.

One would think the Eskimos, with their year-round ready supply of ice, would have led the way, but then there were less added ingredients available that far north. A walrus-flavored sundae doesn’t sound inviting.

Marco Polo is credited with bringing the ice cream recipe to Italy on his return from the Orient around 1300 A.D., perhaps from the kitchens of the Kublai Khan. Marco had scooped all the European chefs, but he didn’t have a copyright, so the frozen delicacy was soon on nearly every menu in the continent.

By around 1600 A.D. someone, perhaps an ice cream chef, found that adding salt to the surrounding ice, speeded up the process of freezing the ingredients and it became easier to create ice cream faster than it was being consumed. Well, almost.

Around then, some chefs were turning out a more sumptuous tutti-frutti than the others. That was probably the case in the court of King Charles I of England. Legend has it that Charles tried to surpress the “Royal Snow” recipe to limit its availability to his court and the peerage.

Charles I was beheaded in 1649, but that was more likely due to his lost battles with Oliver Cromwell than his efforts to deprive his subjects of the wonderful frozen dessert.

His son, Charles II, is mentioned in the Ice Cream Annals as an enthusiastic lover of the creamy dish. It graced the menu of his 1671 Feast of Saint George Dinner at Windsor Castle.

Government records indicate President George Washington spent $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790. The purchasing power of that $200 would be more than $6,000 today. Of course Washington was dishing out most of those scoops to the many guests at his Presidential dinners.

I estimate I spent about $150 on ice cream during all four seasons of 1959. The present day purchasing power of that sum would be about $1,500 now. It was worth every penny.

SLEEP AND THE LACK OF IT

Sleep is mankind’s most important pastime. (You can’t call it an activity unless you’re a very restless sleeper or a somnambulist) We spend about one third of our lives in sleep. If we could do it all from our personal Day One, an average human would sleep until his or her 22nd birthday and then continue busily, without closing an eye, for the next 44 years.

Of course, we’re not built that way. It’s essential that we conk out at regular short intervals to maintain an acceptable level of well-being and to keep from walking into things and nodding into our dinners.

Sleep shoud be a welcome retreat from the hectic pace that our society sets. But man, the only animal capable of pessimism, has invented insomnia so he can have more time to worry about something or other.

Insomnia is not all that bad. Many of us would never do any real deep thinking or experience beautiful sunrises if it were not for insomnia. And there are those making a nice living off other people’s wakefulness.

Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon might never have achieved popularity and could have ended up selling vacuum cleaners door to door if it weren’t for the sleepless millions in their TV audiences who wanted to be entertained while awaiting unconsciousness.

Human nature is such that we need nap times, coffee breaks, lunch hours, seventh-inning stretches, intermissions, weekends and vacations. Most of us are not equipped for the 26.2 mile marathon. We’re more suited for 50 or 100-yard dashes followed by recovery periods and perhaps, cocktails.

Ovid called sleep, “The most gentle of divinities”. Shakespeare personified it as “Nature’s soft nurse”. I agree with both of them. I’ve always stood in awe of divinities and have never been known to have uttered a harsh word against soft nurses.

OUR ESCAPE HATCH

There is one inalienable human right, so safe from the probing, intruding fingers of the authorities that it was unnecessary to even mention it in the Constitution.

We call this sacred privilege the privacy of the human mind, including its absolute freedom to travel through space and time without permission or documentation. Its common name is “Daydreaming”.

God gave us this free pass to make life more bearable. Walter Mitty made it famous when James Thurber gave us a peek into Walter’s overactive brain. The world is full of psychic adventurers, mental nomads sometimes anxious to go anyplace other than “here and now”. What kind of cerebral excursion did you take today?

Perhaps it was while you were in the supermarket checkout line. A magazine cover on the rack may have brought you back to the best vacation you ever had or maybe it was one of your “impossible” daydreams. Never mind, you don’t have to tell.

Boredom is a first-class ticket for an intellectual voyage. Take a look around you at your fellow passengers on the commuter train or bus. Note the glazed eyes and blank expressions. They are no longer on board. Where have they all gone?

The world does need people who find fulfillment working at the grindstone. But there’s an escape hatch available when a corporate grindstoner summons a daydreamer into his office. “I know it’s late, but we’ve got a problem with the Bumble contract,” says V. P. Grindstone as you grasp the hatch’s release handle .

(I’m going to miss another sunset. I was planning to fish down at the lake. I think I’ve finally found where the large mouths are feeding.)

“We can’t live with their consequential damage clause,” growls V.P. Grindstone.

“I’ve had them waive that, sir. It was in my report.” (First I’ll row over to Purzycki’s Landing where that big willow hangs over the water.)

“And we absolutely have to avoid any extended warranties called for in their order.”

“They backed off and agreed to our standard terms, sir.” (Doesn’t he read my reports? Now where was I? Oh yes, under the big willow. Just before dark I’ll use the new flies or maybe I’ll use two rods and work the bottom also. But what bait should I use down there?)

“Well, we’ve managed to clear that up then,” says V.P. Grindstone, patting himself on the back. “It was a real can of worms.” (Worms? Of course, worms! Al Blake caught a four-pounder last week with a night crawler. I got something valuable out of this meeting anyway.)

IF YOU ASK ME…..

Advice is not subject to the ordinary rules of arithmetic. If a man gives you a piece of his advice, it does not decrease his supply. Everyone seems to draw from an unlimited advice stockpile except for the professional advice-givers who have formalized the process with adjoining price lists.

Amateurs are more than willing, even anxious, to give us their valuable advice, free of charge. We often get our money’s worth.

Heaven knows the world would be in even sadder shape if we didn’t care enough about each other to go through the trouble of offering our so-called valuable opinions. The most generous among us send their suggestions in letters to the editors, hoping to enlighten thousands of “wrong-headed” readers.

Some advisors, however, are reluctant to admit to giving us a bum steer. “Yes, I remember I told you to bet heavily on the Giants, but I was sure you knew enough not when they played the Packers, Eagles or the Bears. “

There is also the authoritive type of opinion-giver: “So, this is your garden?”

“Yes, it’s taken a great deal of planning and work, but I’m happy with the results.”

“Do you want my advice?”

“No, I really don’t, but if you have some spare fertilizer I could ceratinly use that. I already have an oversupply of advice. “

“You should switch the marigolds and the zinnias. The color scheme would be greatly improved.”

‘You’re suggesting I transplant 120 full-grown plants? That would be back-breaking and I’d probably lose a lot of them.”

“It would be more than worth the effort and the risk. That’s my advice.”

“That’s not advice. That’s more like the fertizer I told you I need. You know, the kind we get from bulls and horses. “

Bad advice is not always recognizable. There is the case of workmen installing a two-ton statue of George Washington. The monument was dangling from the crane when a large sedan pulled up and a well-dressed gentleman stepped out. “A great work of art, a wonderful tribute!” he said, looking up at the statue.

“He should face City Hall across the street, right?” the foreman asked

“No, no,” the man replied with some irritation. He should face the the west and the nation’s future expansion.”

“I’m glad I asked ,”the foreman said and motioned the statue down to the pedastel where it was rotated and permanently bolted into place, facing the sunset. “It’s a good thing you showed up. I didn’t know they’d changed their minds,” he said.

“Who?” asked the gentleman.

“The Parks Department. Aren’t you from the Parks Department?”

“No, I’m an interior decorator. I have to meet a client in town and stopped to ask for directions.”

“But, why did you tell me…..?”

” Well, you asked.”

Much advice has been given by “wise men” down through the centuries on how to avoid the damage inflicted by advice-givers…… “Never give advice in a crowd,” the Arab proverb warns…… The Spanish version is more specific: “Never advise anyone to go to war or to marry.”……An old German saying cautions us to “never give advice unless asked.”

But wait a minute. Who asked the old German for that advice?



MY JELLYGLASS TRIUMPH

My ad read simply: “Garage Sale. Saturday 9-5. Nice assortment of jelly glasses, old magazines, etc.” Actually, I was fibbing about the etc., but I thought I’d find some odds and ends to sell and it gave the ad a certain air of mystery and intrigue.

I was up late Friday night boxing jelly glasses and leafing through the 200 magazines I’d bought at garage sales and never got around to reading.

Pounding on my front door woke me from a sound sleep Saturday morning. A rather large lady was standing on my stoop. “Are you, or are you not having a garage sale, Mister?” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am, but it starts at nine and it’s only…..My goodness, it’s only 5:30, not even dawn!”

“Your ad didn’t say ‘No early birds” she growled. “Where are the jelly glasses?” I showed her the six full cartons. (My kids and I are great Smuckers fans) She studied them for almost a minute and then barked, “Fifteen!”

“Fifteen what?” I asked, still groggy and having trouble concentrating.

“Okay,” she shouted (as neighbors’ lights began coming on.) “Twenty! And that’s my last offer, Sonny. Tell you what, though, I’ll make it twenty-five if you throw in that big pile of magazines. Deal?”

“It is if you’ll put me down,” I said. Her cigar smoke was beginning to make me nauseous.

I thought I’d done rather well selling out so early and went back to bed feeling smug. My wife will be proud of me when she returns from her mother’s where she and the kids had slept over.

At 5:45 a.m. there was another battering of the front door. “Where are the jelly glasses and magazines?” a middle aged couple demanded.

“I’m sorry, I’m sold out.”

“What about the et ceteras?” the man asked, removing his crash helmet.

“We collect et ceteras,” his little wife said.

“Well,”I began to explain, “I really don’t….”

The wife looked into the foyer. “That’s a cute little side table,” she said.

“We’ll give you fifty bucks for it,” the man said. It was a statement, not an offer. I shoved the bills into my pajama pocket and went back to bed, hoping my wife would understand later about our old wobbly table.

As the morning progressed I realized that people who go through the travel and trouble of responding to an ad, don’t like to hear they’ve wasted their time.

I agreed to an irresistable offer for our ancient sofa. My lawn chairs and potted plants went next, then my garden hose and sprinkler. By setting an artificially exhorbitant price and refusing to budge, I saved our cat.

I locked the kids’ room first and later bolted the front and back doors and hid in the basement. But someone dug up a small forsythia in the front garden and left thirty dollars and a note in the mailbox.

“It isn’t as bad as it looks,” I told my wife when she returned, looking stunned as she stared into the almost empty living room. “Have a sip of my Chablis, Dear. You’ll feel better. Sorry about the chipped cup. They bought most of our stemware and china and paid top dollar for everything. We can replace it all with new stuff and have a lot left over.”

“Please, not the jelly glasses,” she pleaded. “Promise me you won’t go out next Saturday and start buying jelly glasses and magazines . It’s so good to have the spare room available again.”

” I promise, Sweetheart,” I said, happy to see she was perking up and smiling.

“Okay then, that’s settled,” she said. “Now let’s get you to bed. It looks like you’ve had a long, hard day.”

“Oh, Sweetheart, about the bed……”