Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Porcupine's New Year

You know what they say. They say you shouldn't do that. They say that's bad for you. Oh, yeah - they say that's about the worst thing. You need to do this now.

Really? I didn't know that. Hm.

You know what? I've just about had it with them. You know who I'm talking about. The people who told you not to eat butter 20 years ago. The ones who said how much better margarine was. The same ones who are telling you now that margarine is full of trans-fats. Now you're supposed to eat butter again. But not too much. In fact, you really need to eat more olive oil. That's the thing - olive oil. Unless it isn't.

And coffee. The caffeine will really stress you out. Don't drink too much coffee. It causes cancer. Unless it doesn't. In fact, a cup or two of coffee a day may prevent cancer. You know what you need? Red wine. That's the thing. Red wine. Full of antioxidants. You should drink a glass or two of red wine a day. Then you'll always be young, rich and healthy. You'll practically live forever. Unless you don't.

Grandma never would have put up with this crap.

You know what I'm resolving this year? I'm not going to listen to anything they say anymore. To hell with them. Quite frankly, the evidence seems to show that they don't know what the hell they're talking about. I've had it with them.

They think we're all too stupid too remember what they said last year. Or the year before. Or the year before that. Well, I've had it with them. To hell with them.

How long did they tell us to put our children to sleep on their bellies? Always on the belly. That's the thing. Unless we're supposed to put them to sleep on their backs, right? That's the new thing. Always on their backs. Back to sleep. And that's what it'll be until they change their minds again.

When you think about it, how did any of us ever survive childhood? With our sharp edged metal toys? With our lead-painted cribs with the slats too far apart? Riding bicycles without helmets? Without seat belts or car seats? How did we ever manage?

With parents who actually smoked in our presence? Remember that? When an ashtray was part of a restaurant table setting? "You're too young to smoke!" How many of you remember hearing that? A whole bunch, I bet. It's a wonder we didn't all just drop dead on the spot.

Remember the four food groups? Having a square meal? Remember when bacon and eggs was a good breakfast? When a nice juicy-red steak was a good dinner? Remember? I bet you do.

Once upon a time, a man named William Howard Taft was elected president. Remember that? OK, most of you probably don't remember the Taft administration, but you might remember that the guy was huge. Think he could get elected today? Not a chance. The poor guy would be stuck somewhere sweatin' to the oldies. Instead of being the subject of graduate theses, he'd be signing up for Weight Watchers.

When you really look at it, the medical profession hasn't done too well for itself. I mean, it was only in the 1860s that they decided it might be good to wash hands between surgeries, maybe even wipe off the saw. Or what about this:

The days of our years are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow.
- Psalm 90:10

Yep. Psalm 90 numbers our years between 70 and 80. You know what the current life expectancy is in the U.S. of A? 78. And most of that statistical "increase" is due to lower infant mortality. Sorry if I sound unimpressed. Sure, we don't die of polio or smallpox or pneumonia so much anymore. That's good. Now we have an exciting new list of things to croak us. MRSA, AIDS, E. Coli ? No, thanks.


I spent an awful lot of time with my grandparents. I know the good old days weren't really, but you know what? Maybe they didn't live quite as long but they had more fun doing it. They didn't go around worrying about the numbers: blood pressure, blood sugar, A1Cs, cholesterol, LDLs, HDLs, triglycerides and all the rest. A day out in the sun was a good day. They didn't consult "the experts" all that often and were happier for it.

My grandmother was pretty diabetic. One of my jobs was to fill syringes for her, which she found hard to do. One of my other jobs was to bring her two fresh glazed doughnuts every visit, without fail. To her, a life without doughnuts was not a life worth living. Who am I to say she was wrong?

My grandfather, on the other hand, was a clean-living guy. Early to bed, early to rise, never smoked, never drank, and practically lived on nuts and berries. Not because of any "experts," mind. That was just who he was. He worked for the Postal Service, not in factories full of chemicals. Yet he died at 72 from what I call "cancer of the everything." So much for the experts.


Here's the question: are we any better off for listening to experts? What are we giving up and what are we getting in return? I think we're giving up more than we think and are getting not much in return. For example, you know what I can't say to the porcupets when we go out? Why don't you bring a friend. Remember that? Everyone piling into the car for a day out? Not anymore. I once had to drive past a friend and her kids walking in the rain and I couldn't offer them a ride. No room with all the car seats. No extra car seats either. I'm not so sure this is a good thing.

It seems to me that lots of folks want us to live in fear. That way, they can sell us a load of vague promises at a premium. And speaking of premiums, have you noticed what it takes to be considered "healthy" by an insurance company lately? You practically have to be an Olympic athlete or an active-duty Marine. I think it's time we all said enough. I've had it with them. To hell with them. How about something for normal people?

What if, instead of car seats, we all drove a bit more carefully? How about that? How about if we made the insurance companies take a chance? They're just gamblers, after all. Why should they get to rig the game? Want to know my cholesterol? My blood pressure? Too bad. Roll the dice, guys. Good luck. What if we accepted our threescore and ten and left it at that? Well, at least we'd have more fun and less Alzheimer's. That might be a start. To hell with them.

Why not try some of the following for 2010 and see how it goes:

  • Cancel your physical
  • Skip your meds
  • Blow off the gym
  • Smoke
  • If you don't smoke, start.
  • Have coffee and doughnuts for breakfast
  • Have a burger, fries and a coke for lunch
  • Have a dinner that comes straight from the fryolator
  • Have a huge sundae for dessert
  • Often
  • Drink more beer
  • Gain ten pounds
  • Eat fried chicken and biscuits on Sunday
  • Butter everything
  • Stay up late
  • Call in sick
  • Sleep in
  • Take the kids to the beach in the back of a pickup truck
  • Ignore the experts
  • Drive the speed limit in the middle lane
  • Smile

Maybe it would help. Maybe not. It's worth a try, though. I can't say we've been getting too far doing things
their way. It's a sad day when Marilyn Monroe would be considered chubby and the President has to sneak a cigarette outside the White House. If that doesn't say it all, I don't know what does.

That's my advice for 2010. To hell with them. Do something fun, guilt-free, see how you feel. Happy New Year and please pass the butter.

Very Truly Yours,



Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Anagram Star Schism

Vegetarians dance in Paris. Why say your prayer? Why? Hmm?


Any way you prepare a Swiss ham, never cry in a rhythm, dig?


Whiny ovaries guy napped anyway. Hear! It screams myrrh.


A final thought before the New Year. Yesterday, when I woke up, the thermometer read one degree Fahrenheit. This morning, it read two degrees. Question: is it twice as warm today? Discuss.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,


Monday, December 21, 2009

Chapter And Verse

December 2001. St. Mary's 7th Grade Catechism Class. The students grudgingly file in. Though the friendlier ones say hello, none of them are truly happy to see me. They are anxious to get this over with and return to their TVs and cell-phones. Christmas vacation is near. Their minds are on other things.

Silently, I take attendance from the front of the room. They look at me and look around nervously. He's smiling. Not good. He's in one of his moods again. Not good at all. I begin handing out paper.

You all know the Christmas story, right? Not the one about Ralphie and his B.B. gun, but the real Christmas story?

I receive the expected nods and mumbles. I direct their attention to a Nativity scene on the center table.

OK. Take the next half-hour or so and write it down. You can write it however you'd like. Spelling and grammar don't count, just include as many details as you can remember. If you get stuck, use the Nativity scene to help you. You can talk to the other people at your table if you like, but keep the noise down, and everybody has to hand in a finished story. Any questions?

There are none. They set to work. Thirty-odd minutes later, I call time. They hand in their work. Class continues.

The following Christmas narrative is compiled from their efforts. Every single line, save one, comes directly from one of their papers. All I have done is arrange them. Completely useless bonus points will be awarded to you if you can spot the one line I could not resist adding. It probably won't be difficult.

And now, enjoy the Christmas story according to St. Mary's 7th Grade Catechism Class, 2001.


1 Once upon a time there was a couple, Joseph and Mary.
2 The virgin Mary was appointed
3 By one of God's angels in a dream.
4 One night an angel came up to Mary
5 And told her she was going to have God's body
6 And she shall call him Jesus.
7 Mary had Jesus in her stomach.
8 Mary came to Joseph pregnant
9 And Joseph thought Mary was with another man.
10 He got mad then Mary explained
11 And Joseph started to understand.
12 Jesus was God's son but Joseph was Mary's wife.

13 Her and Joseph travel to Bethlaham.
14 They had to go back to Bethlaham so Joseph could register.
15 They traveled and traveled
16 Because the hotels would not accept pregnant women.
17 They finally found a place in the barn of an old farmer.
18 There were a lot of creatures there
19 Like sheep and goats and pigs.
20 E-I-E-I-O.

21 And Jesus was born.
22 Jesus had no crib or a bed.
23 Mary wrapped him in swadling clothes
24 And laid him in the manger.
25 It was a place where the cows ate hey.
26 While in the manger, the baby did not cry.
27 He was supposely born on December 25th but this is not a fact.

28 A shepard came bringing sheep's wool.
29 An Angle told the tree wize man a King has been born.
30 They are told by shepherd to follow the North Star.
31 The three wise kings came and folled the big star
32 To Bethlaham to the manger where he was born.
33 They brought Jesus gifs.
34 Gold, franksense, mur and other good stuff.
35 They went because they thought Jesus was the Savour.
36 They were happy to see the baby.

37 News spread that there was going to be a new king
38 Which made the present king furious.
39 Jesus was born on the stable on Christmas.
40 Then he died on the cross and took away all our sins.
41 And they lived happily ever after. Amen.


What can I say? It is so right, yet so very wrong. I was amazed that, for all their veneer of cool and sophistication, many of them began "once upon a time" and ended "happily ever after." I knew they were not as grown-up as they thought. Perhaps in their hearts, they knew that too. Strangely, this text speaks to us in its own way, and is worth its own meditations. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Respectfully Yours,


Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Last Dance

To my grandmother, they were always "the girls." Girls, though none of them would see seventy again. In a way, they still were girls to each other. They had grown up together, raised families together, buried their husbands together. They knew their age, yet they did not see it when they were together. Then, they were still the girls.

They all had pet names for each other. One day, I realized why. They all hated their given names. They all had the misfortune to be born during the era of ugly girl's names. An entire generation of Agathas, Ethels and Mildreds, compelled by a moment's fashion to bear those names for a lifetime.

My grandmother made a point of having me meet them all, or having them meet me. I was never quite sure which. Many an afternoon she would bundle me into the car for lunch at Helen's or Eunice's. There I would sit, eating thin sandwiches and sweet pickled watermelon rind, speaking when spoken to, mostly listening.

She wanted me to see her with her friends. To know that she had a life of her own. To know that she existed beyond the limits of wife, mother, grandmother. To know that she knew people with interesting stories to tell. People who had been places and done things. People who had lived.

She outlived them all.

I saw my grandmother cry exactly three times: for her brother, for his wife, and for my grandfather. When the last of her "girls" died, I thought I might see it again. Perhaps she did cry, privately. I don't know. To me, she seemed to find a certain peace, as if she had been given permission to complete her own life. She had outlived her husband and all her friends. She had raised her children. She had seen all her grandchildren into adulthood. She had even become a great-grandmother. Eunice had been her last tie to the past. Now she was truly free.


Nana can still walk, but only with great difficulty. She prefers to conserve her energy. In the back-bedroom, we are setting out her clothes for the week. From an antique wheelchair, she gestures toward the closet.

Take the cream colored blouse and hang it on the rail, Christopher. Over there, next to the brown one.

This one?

No, not that. That's too nice. I want to be buried in that one. The other one.

Buried? You're feeling morbid today.

Morbid?!? I'm eighty years old, Christopher. It's not morbid, it's reality. Get used to it. Now bring me to the kitchen. I want to make a bread pudding before you go.

It is a ritual. We have made countless bread puddings. I know exactly how she will tell me to prepare it. She knows, too. She knows she could just ask me to make it and I would. We will not do that. I will take no steps without her instruction, not even setting out the eggs and milk. I will be her grandson. She will be my grandmother. We love each other too much to do it another way. We will do it together.


Nana is uncharacteristically excited. She has given me an extra long shopping list. My cousin James and his wife Ginger will be flying in for a wedding. They will bring their daughter, Cassie. Nana will finally meet her great-grandchild. She knows this will not happen again. She wants to be prepared. She confirms with me several times that I will be there to help her entertain.

My cousins arrive. I serve coffee and pastry. We pay court to our grandmother as we get acquainted. I do not know them at all well, yet it is not uncomfortable. Sometimes blood is enough. Cassie entertains herself on the kitchen floor. She has just turned one. We pause our conversations now and then to watch her, and affirm to each other that she is a beautiful little girl.

My grandmother's face has an expression that I have not seen before. I cannot place it. It is in her eyes. As she watches Cassie babble and play, she is transformed. Her face shows more than pride, more than happiness, more than even love. I look from Cassie to my grandmother and realize what I see. It is joy. Pure joy.


We attend the wedding together. I wear my grandfather's tweed suit, complete with vest and watch-chain. She wears her too-nice cream colored blouse. I have a cream rose boutonniere. She wears a matching corsage. She will be the matriarch. I will be her escort. We will make the most of the time we have. We will do this in style. She gently chides me over my cigar and cocktail, while enjoying a second glass of chardonnay herself. She knows we will both get home safely.

The evening winds down. The band plays Moonlight Serenade. We both love this song. We look at each other and know that we would dance if we could. I give her hand a gentle squeeze. That will have to be enough.

It is a pity that these moments have to end, but they do. Life goes on. We are compelled to complete the circle. Hopefully, we do the things that need to be done, in style, with love, together. Hopefully, we make the most of the time we have. That is all we can do. Forever and always, that will have to be enough.

Respectfully Yours,


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Gift

This is not a post, but a request. After you read these few words, go to Suldog's and read The Gift. This is not only my favorite essay of his, but also one of my favorite Christmas stories ever. I have read it many times and each time I like it more. If you haven't read it, you need to. If you have, read it again and find something of the joy of Christmas.

In a way, this link is a bit futile since, by my calculations, it is eight times more likely that you were directed here by Suldog than that I will direct you to him. Even so, I have an advantage over many of you, in that for seven years Jim and I worked together. I can truly say that the Jim you have met on the pages of Suldog is the real Jim. If you were to share a coffee break with him, his stories would sound the same.

I see his comments all over. He always seems to have the time to encourage a fellow blogger, myself included. He is a wonderful person and a good friend. He doesn't care for awards too much, but I think he'll accept these few words. Now go read a wonderful Christmas story and remember something of the magic of Christmas past.

Respectfully Yours,


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Porcupine Says Humbug

In response to recent Christmas posts, my dear friend Porcupine has requested five minutes for rebuttal. I yield the floor to him now. Respectfully Yours, Cricket


humbug (hum' bug) n. 1. Something intended to deceive; hoax. 2. One who tries to trick or deceive. 3. Nonsense; rubbish. [Orig. unknown.]

I hate to say it. I really do. Ten days until Christmas and I'm already tired of the whole thing. It wouldn't bother me a bit if it were suddenly ten days since Christmas. Not a bit.

Of course, there are some things that don't bother me. Tidings of comfort and joy. Peace on earth, good-will to men. A candle in the window and a fire on the hearth. Those things are all right. Even an old porcupine still gets misty for that. And fruitcake. Good fruitcake with lots of rum and nuts in it. I like that, too.

But then there's the rest of it: the humbuggery. I like that word. My dictionary includes it and I think it's just about right. The hoax, the nonsense, the rubbish. That is what I could sincerely do without.

Porcupines are solitary creatures, you know. We enjoy being left to ourselves. It's in our nature. We aren't good mixers. We dislike small-talk. Porcupines can go for days without speaking to anyone. That's a fact. You might think it would be obvious that the best thing to do with a porcupine is leave him alone.

About the worst thing you can do to a porcupine is bring him to a series of parties, each more lavish than the last. Mandatory merriment is what it is. Porcupines don't like mandatory anything. Neither are we particularly merry. We can be happy, or content, even sometimes lovable, though you don't see children cuddle up with a stuffed porcupine too often, do you? Why might that be? Hmm?

Then there are gifts. Porcupines live simple lives. Check the Forbes lists someday. You know what you won't find? Porcupines. No, porcupines don't go in for extravagance. We like useful things, mostly. But an old porcupine already has most of the things he wants, and the things he needs don't make good gifts. You know what I need right now? Dental work. Good luck putting that under the tree.

We porcupines always get the feeling around Christmas that something has gone wrong. Maybe it's just us. Porcupines don't do merry very well. We're much better at a well-placed barb. Still, I'd like to put an idea out there for your consideration. It's probably too late for this year, but there's always next.


I realize this is going to be a tough sell. It doesn't play well in my own house. Mrs. Porcupine and the porcupets all have their own ideas about Christmas. Of course, Mrs. Porcupine is only a porcupine by marriage. That has a lot to do with it. The hold of tradition is strong. All I ask is that you consider it, ruminate a bit, if you will. Things weren't always as they are. Maybe they could be some other way.

One day I was singing along to some Christmas music and I found myself changing the words. I sang: we need a little less Christmas, right this very minute. Well, I was feeling contrary. But still. Think about it. How many things do you do at Christmas because you have to, or worse, because you think you have to? What would happen if we did only the things that we enjoy? Would it be so bad?

For starters, what if Christmas gifts were just for children? Say 12 and under. Young enough for Santa. Young enough that toys and sweets mean something. It works at Easter. Why not? I appreciate the thought behind most gifts but I don't really need more things. I could do with just the thought, myself.

And Christmas cards. What's the cost-benefit there? I could probably count on one hand the people who would notice if I did not send one. I don't mind getting them but I couldn't tell you offhand who sent one and who didn't. Add up the cost, plus postage, and you could probably put a fine meal on your table. Or someone else's, for that matter.

And parties. What would happen if we only attended the ones we wanted? I'd say we'd have parties where everyone was happy to be there. Not so bad. More celebration, less obligation. What do you think?

What if we figured everything we spent on Christmas and gave half to the truly needy, bought gifts for the children in our lives, and pocketed the rest? What if we got together with our family and friends for a fine dinner and left it at that? What would happen? What would Christmas be like? Would there be more joy in the world or less?

The retailers wouldn't like it. They'd probably tell us it's unpatriotic. There's always some talking head ready to tell you that the economy is going south because we didn't spend enough on Black Friday. I don't buy it, though. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The poor people have all the money. Right.

It's a tough sell, I know. Still, I wonder if I was wrong about the song. We don't need a little less Christmas. We need a lot less humbug. I think if we tried that we'd get a lot more Christmas in the bargain. It's probably too late for this year, but there's always next. Ruminate, if you will. And know that, despite my prickly exterior, I wish you and yours a wonderful, humbug-free Christmas, with tidings of comfort and joy, a candle in the window, and a fire on the hearth.

Very Truly Yours,