A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Friday, November 1, 2013


Here's an interesting article that I ran across the other day.  Some of my older readers may appreciate the list.

I  miss the taste of paste (wintergreen) and the smell and feel and visual glory (and names) of  Crayola brand crayons (which I actually collect to this day). I  also miss clapping erasers together to remove most of the chalk dust, and then opening the port to the built-in vacuum system to let the negative pressure do the rest. I also miss blackboards and using white and colored chalk. (I've taught in classrooms with the "revised updated" green boards and those white boards that use foul, chemical-smelling markers that stain hands,  sleeves and shirt fronts). Cursive writing, for me at least, was always easier than printing which we were never taught. While my results were never as good as Lucy Stansbury's (class artist), they were passable and I learned to write quickly.  I even learned some symbols to speed up taking notes such as "&" for "and"  along with the use of arrows and balloon circles.

I  also miss my special Scripto automatic pencil with its shorter round, see-through red or blue barrel and pink eraser. I will not miss the wall-mounted pencil sharpeners that I had to clean and that left my hands filthy with carbon black. But I will miss the sharp points that those wall mounters gave my lead pencils (#2 yellow Ticondaroga or Dixon), a point that hand-held sharpeners can't duplicate. I do miss 16 mm. Bell and Howell movie projectors, less so the slide projector--even those with carousels-- or the film strip projectors with their funny beeps. Cigar boxes, of course, were a luxury item for those of us who lived in non-smoking households.  I had a deal with the local pharmacist who saved me some every now and then. Cigar boxes could be made to hold a variety of secret, amazing items, including de-coder rings, single edge razor blades for model airplane building, a skate key, a missing jigsaw puzzle piece, a chess piece, a folding scout knife with multiple blades, a match book, cloth "wolf-bear-lion" patches from my blue cub scout shirt, and a spare (oft-misplaced) needle valve that we used with a bicycle pump to inflate basketballs and footballs. You get the idea.

I wonder if enforced good manners have also disappeared? Coloring between the lines? Cutting construction paper to make Christmas Tree chains or Valentines--with a deplorably dull set of round pointed tin scissors? How about peanut butter sandwiched between the halves of a hamburger bun, warm milk in half pint cartons with a straw, fig newtons, brown bananas, or the surprising first taste of V-8?

I reserve a special place in my memory of elementary schools for the smell of mimeograph sheets or ditto sheets. The scent of that ink can still take my imagination through history--across the world, over the times tables, up and down animal kingdom, and in and out of Presidents and capitals. I knew so much, so easily, then. Uncomplicated process and no Software building and testing errors.

What will Millenials miss? Boomers?
10 things disappearing from elementary schools
Cursive is going the way of the abacus
You don't see this much anymore.
You don't see this much anymore. (Three Lions/Getty Images)
Modern technology has changed the American classroom in many ways, as have parental attitudes. Here are some elementary school essentials that are either long gone or starting to disappear from the classroom.
1. BlackboardsThe first classroom blackboard was reportedly installed at West Point in 1801. As the railroads spread across the U.S., so did chalkboards, as slate was now easily hauled long-distance from mines in Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania. By the 1960s, though, blackboards began to go green — literally. Steel plates coated with porcelain enamel replaced the traditional slate boards; the green was easier on the eyes and chalk erased more completely off of the paint. In the 1990s, though, whiteboards began creeping into classrooms. Turns out that even "dustless" chalk annoyed kids with allergies and got into the nooks and crannies of the computers that were beginning to become classroom fixtures.
2. RecessThere are many reasons why some schools are eliminating or shortening recess: Students need every available moment for academics in order to prepare for standardized tests, too much liability lest a child gets injured, not enough budget to hire sufficient playground supervision, etc. Some schools that do still have recess have banned dodgeball or games like tag. Other schools have Recess Coaches who provide structured play and conflict resolution (Rock-Paper-Scissors rather than Pink Bellies) on the playground.
3. Cursive penmanship
Who could have predicted that one day, cursive handwriting would become a hot-button issue along the lines of school prayer and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? But thanks to computers and texting and all that fancy technology, script handwriting is slowly going the way of the abacus. Many educators believe that legible printing and good typing skills are all today's students need to learn to succeed in the world, and cursive is a non-essential skill. I recall feeling quite grown-up when I started learning cursive in the second grade — I could now read all that "secret" stuff my mom and other adults were writing down!
4. Wall-mounted hand crank pencil sharpeners
Maybe teachers were made of sturdier stuff Back in the Day, or maybe they just had a stock of Valium in the teacher's lounge…how else did they survive without the "Classroom-Friendly Pencil Sharpeners" that are all the rage? Some are electric, some are manual, but they are quiet and many have a pop-out feature to prevent over-sharpening. Sure, these old-style sharpeners were awkward for southpaws to use, but to take away the fun of grinding a pencil down to a stub just for the heck of it? Sheesh.
5. PasteMany school supply lists today require glue sticks, not the good ol' white paste in a jar with an applicator that smelled so minty good it always inspired at least one kid to eat the stuff.
6. Film projectorsThe really fancy models came with a playback device that "beeped" when it was time to advance the filmstrip to the next frame. And it always seemed to take forever to get the picture just right on the screen (propping it up on one book, then two…then focusing…). But we didn't mind the delay — it was just that much more time that we didn't have to spend actually studying or paying attention.
7. 16mm movie projectorsThe A/V captain had to turn the volume up to 11 most of the time, due to the poor sound quality of the ancient films and the clack-clack-clack noise of the sprocket holes moving through the machinery. Sometimes a series of holes were broken and the film would get "stuck" or skip. The projectionist knew then to stick a pencil in the lower loop and pull it just so to get the classic Coronet or Jiminy Cricket "I'm No Fool" educational short back on track.
8. Pencil sharpeners with exposed razorsYou probably don't see many pencil cases with built-in times table cheat sheets any more, and even pocket pencil sharpeners have undergone a transformation in recent years. The models sold for student use are much more safety-oriented, with the blade concealed in a plastic cup or enclosure of some sort. In fact, in 2008 police were summoned to a school in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when a student was "caught" possessing a small razor blade. The police report stated that the "weapon" was obviously from a pocket pencil sharpener that had broken (the kid had the broken plastic pieces, too), but the school was obliged to call the law due to their "zero tolerance for weapons" policy.
9. Cigar boxesEven back in the 1960s, you could buy "school boxes" that were the same size and had the same hinged lid as a cigar box, but they had cutesy pictures of the alphabet and school supplies painted on them. And they cost money. So when kids brought home that list of necessary school supplies every year, many parents went to the local drugstore and got an empty cigar box for free. There was something rather soothing about opening that box up during the day to retrieve a pencil or ruler and getting a quick whiff of rich tobacco aroma. By the end of the year, of course, ol' King Edward had an eye patch and warts drawn all over his face. Thanks to the decline of smoking in the U.S. and the idea of a tobacco product being near a first grader's desk, most students bring those store-bought boxes to class these days.
10. Mimeographed sheetsSometimes called "dittos" and technically referred to as a spirit duplicator, they reproduced multiple copies of an original document in dark purple ink for the teacher to pass out. But the most important thing about a ditto sheet was the aroma — a fresh one smelled heavenly. It was pretty much a reflex — as soon as you were handed a freshly mimeographed paper, you lifted it up to your face and inhaled that delicious, indescribable fragrance.


A day or two ago, as is my habit, I went to Starbucks at 6:45 am for a cup of Pikes Place and, hopefully, some conversation with friends or the young baristas who know me so well and laugh at my lame early morning attempts at humor. It was a grey morning, drizzling, cold, and overcast, and I could see my breath for the first time this winter. As I approached the cheery, lighted facade of the warm store, inhaling as I did the goodness of baked bagels from Einstein's Bagel Bakery next door, I spotted a man sitting on one of the new outside "all weather" couches that the company recently installed in its attempt to improve the seating options for its customers. 

The man was dressed in a grey, old fashioned overcoat, buttoned to the top with collar up. Stubble covered his coarse red cheeks, and he was drinking a Venti coffee. I looked his way and greeted him with a typical "Hey, how's it going?" and was surprised by his answer.  "Great," he replied, "I've got my coffee here to warm my belly." "I'm homeless, you know,  but don't let that scare you." 

His coffee breath came out in great puffs.  So, I asked, "So, how'd ya like another?" and he replied, "That'd be great. With cream and sugar, if ya don't mind." Minutes later I emerged from the store with his coffee and mine, handed him his steaming white cup, which he took  as he held out his other hand for me to shake, saying "Thanks.  My street name's Kenny, from County Kilkenny in Ireland, but my real name's Mark." 

When I heard that his name was the same as mine, I was instantly overcome with some indefinable emotion, spontaneous, deep, and immediate. I choked up and felt my tears begin to flow. Quickly, with an embarrassment engendered in early childhood ("Johnson men don't cry"),  I wished him "Be well," and headed for my car, hot tears streaming down my face.There I sat for a while without turning on the ignition, let the tears run their course, watching the emergence of the pink dawn over the King Sooper sign, while pondering what in the world had hooked my emotions so deeply.

I guess the honest answer is that I have always known that there is only a hair's breadth  of difference between my life with its moderately comfortable status and a life of being homeless or worse, and that my condition is mostly a matter of luck, genetics, time and place of birth, and some good fortune (yes lots of hard work and skill too) along the way. But it is tenuous at best/

I have often thought since I retired and was no longer able to generate new  income that it wouldn't take too much of a hiccup in the Stock Market to render me penniless--as 2002 and 2008 demonstrated. While the specter of being penniless and of living in a cardboard box under I-25 is not likely to become a reality, sometimes --like my chance meeting  with the "other Mark"--  I realize that I do not devote enough time and attention to being grateful for so much that I do have and enjoy in my life whose existence has been totally out of my control.

This morning while enjoying a hot shower for example, I reminded myself that there are countless millions who do not have running water, hot or cold. That took me to thinking about my warm apartment with its soft mattress, of the clean clothes I was about to put on, and the plentiful, hot oatmeal breakfast I was going to enjoy(?) with fresh apples and prunes brought from Kings Sooper nearby.

Those thoughts, in turn, made me realize how fortunate I am to have been born in America, to have been the wrong age to fight in wars, to have been born with all my limbs in tact, to have reasonable eyesight and hearing, a body free from inherited disease, and only a minor non-fatal flaw in my heart. All these are quite out of my control or choosing.  I was born to non-addicted parents who had worked hard and made enough money to send me to college, who valued and passed on to me  their love of books and education and music, and civility. Also out of my control was the fact of being born in the USA, upper middle class, and white, with a family name that was mostly untarnished by the deeds of my ancestors (so I was really free to be me). I didn't have to live down anything--although I did have lots to live up to.

I was also blessed with a magnificent marriage, two healthy, productive, compassionate, responsible and stable daughters, wonderful pets, great employment, invigorating and loyal friends, and on and on. The voyage of my life has, in large measure, been on a ship which I did not build, which I have mostly  tried to keep repaired while underway, and which I've barely been able to steer through oceans and weather patterns out of my control toward an unknown destination.

So, this morning, All Saints Day, I celebrate all the Saints in my life--past and present--who have helped keep my little ship safe, mostly dry, sails mended, and I also celebrate and give thanks for my blessings, especially the unearned ones.

And speaking of voyaging through life, here's some food for the trip.

For the Traveler

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

~ John O'Donohue ~