Put the Labor Back into Labor Day

Labor Day is not a lonely and forgotten holiday. It is celebrated as the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. The schoolyear begins as does the football season. But how often do we commemorate the original purpose of the holiday, the labor movement? At least on most Labor Days, however, I think about a laboring man, my grandfather.

 I was raised in a working-class family. My parents, sister, brother, and I lived on the ground floor of a two-story house. My father’s parents lived upstairs. While I talked with my grandmother some, I spent almost no time with my grandfather, who just seemed silent around us. I have no idea how he ended up in Wisconsin. He was born in Pennsylvania to an immigrant family, most of whom emigrated back to Germany. I felt like I knew only two things about him: He played skat, a card game, at a local tavern on some weekends and evenings, and he worked at the Kohler Company, the firm that makes toilets and sinks and bathtubs. Other than that he was some sort of laborer in the factory, I didn’t know what he did.

I do know that he started at Kohler in 1917. I am confident of this fact because I now have my grandfather’s Hamilton pocket watch, which was awarded him by his employer on his twenty-fifth anniversary of working for the company. His initials are inscribed on the back. A cover opens revealing his name and further inscriptions: “1917 SERVICE 1942” and “KOHLER OF KOHLER”.  A goldish chain is attached to the watch and to a medallion, which is inscribed on the back with my grandfather’s name. The obverse has a relief of a factory worker, “Kohler” boldly written across the medallion, with a slogan on one side: “He Who Toils Here Hath Set His Mark.” (When I used to wear three-piece suits to court, I would carry this watch and medallion in my vest pockets. The watch still works beautifully.)

My grandfather continued working at Kohler for another dozen years, but then a strike came. Kohler was by far the largest employer in the area, and the walkout, with my grandfather joining the strikers, had a huge effect on the town. As the strike went on and union benefits lessened, families faced tough times. Some strikers sought other work, but there was not much to be had. A few decided to return to work. Loyalties were tested. In a town with a tavern culture, some regulars found they were no longer welcome at their favorite bar. Sporadic acts of violence occurred. I was only eight or nine when it began, and the kids seldom mentioned it. Child friendships did not follow the fault lines fissuring from the strike, but at home I learned the epithet “Scab” and the words to Solidarity Forever.

And I saw the effect on my grandfather. He was now home at times I had never seen before. And he looked lost, bewildered. Part of his life, his identity, had been stripped. I have no idea what kind of economic strain was weighing on my grandparents, and from the sanctuary of childhood, I never thought about it, or I never thought about it until a few years after the strike started. I was with some friends, and we wandered into a park behind our school’s playground. And there was my grandfather raking leaves. Until then, I was not aware that he worked for the city’s Parks Department. He saw me; I saw him. We made no signs of recognition. He looked embarrassed. Raking leaves was the kind of demeaning make-work projects of the Depression. It was akin to a handout. It was not the real work of making something as was done at the Kohler Company. Or perhaps, my grandfather was fine, and only I was embarrassed for what he now had to do. I know that I did not want my friends to know that the lonely-looking figure under the trees was my grandfather. Perhaps my grandfather was truly embarrassed or perhaps he recognized that I was or perhaps both, but we exchanged no greetings.

The strike lasted six years, then, and I still think today, the longest strike in the country’s history. The National Labor Relations Board eventually found that Kohler had not bargained with the union in good faith, and that set off another round of contentiousness about what back pay was owed the strikers. The year the strike ended my grandfather died.

My sister recently told me something I did not know–that my grandfather waited by his upstairs window watching for me to come home from school. He knew that I was studying German, a language that he considered his native tongue (he also spoke English, of course, and Lithuanian), and he was proud of my German studies. Although I would try to exchange a few words of German with my grandmother, I never said a word of German to him. I am sorry for that, and I am sorry that I did not go up to him in that park. We did not hug much in my family, but I wish that I had given him one. He may no longer have had the job that had been part of his identity for forty years, but work was still important to him, and the many others like him. I try to remember that, especially on Labor Day.

Labor Day was meant to honor the American labor movement, but do we do that on the holiday or at any other time? Aren’t we much more likely to denigrate the laboring class or organized labor? How often do you praise unions? When you pass a highway road crew, do you spot workers seemingly idling and think, “Working hard or hardly working?”

That was often my reaction at least until I got a job in a cemetery in the summer after I graduated from high school. My first assignment was to rake a grassy plot that had been recently cut. I thought that this would be easy, even pleasurable. I was young and fit, and I loved the smell of freshly mown grass. But after quarter hour my arms were sore. I took a few minutes’ break. After another fifteen minutes, my shoulders started to burn. I took another break. After a total of ninety minutes, every part of my body seemed jelly-like. How could all those people do something like this for eight hours day after day? Luckily, a regularly scheduled coffee break at nine interceded, and I was given a new assignment at its conclusion.

 During that summer, I worked alongside the full-time employees, and I saw how hard they worked and how often they took pride in what they accomplished. I had a new-found respect for those who labored. This education continued into the summers of my college years when I worked in a factory. I learned how hard it was to do repetitive tasks on my feet for a workday, but again I learned that the workers cared about the product. If I did not assemble something correctly or made some other mistake, I was quickly informed on how to do the task properly. These were boom times, and we worked nine-and-a-half hour days during the week and a half-day on Saturdays. The full-time workers did not complain but were happy for the extra money that they could make. I bitched a lot, got regularly drunk in what was left of the evening after scarfing down a meal, and then dragged myself out of bed at 5:45 A.M. for the start of another nine-and-a-half hour day.

(concluded on Labor Day)

Non-Binary Tennis

( Guest post from the NBP)

I am the “non-binary progeny” of my dad’s blog. Non-binary, should you not know (and I don’t mean to imply that you are unaware, but a whole lot of people don’t know this), means that I identify as neither a woman nor a man. However, my gender “assigned at birth” was female, thus I was raised as a girl. This proved to be complicated for me growing up. Playing tennis revealed some of the issues that a regular girl might not have encountered, but I was not a regular *gulp* girl.

When I was nine my parents started renting a summer place in Pennsylvania. It’s a really “nice” er civilized place: a small community of about 300 families, it has 27 holes of golf, a beautiful Olympic-sized swimming pool, and 10 tennis courts. As a kid, I hated it. There were almost no kids there my age. I was a year younger than one group of girls, who, of course, formed a clique, and I was a year older than other girls who, of course, wanted nothing to do with me. I played mucho tennis.

At 11 or 12, I had rather longish hair, and it was very thick, or thicc as they say now. That’s what girls had, after all (*^%*$%$*). However, “hair things” (ties, scrunchies, elastics) seemed like accessories or jewelry. I hated that kind of stuff, so I wouldn’t have one of those “hair things” touch me. No matter how hot I got, I would keep my hair down. My hair would, of course, fall into my face and stick to the sweat there. Pleasant. My mother, seeing me struggle with my hair with sweat pouring down my face and neck tried to convince me that boys and men would put their hair in pony-tails, “like Andre Agassi,” she said. Well, he was one of my idols. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t touch a hair thing. I must have been in a constant state of dehydration.

And then, of course, there was the issue of tennis clothes—more specifically, the dreaded tennis skirt. It was common that girls wore tennis skirts, or worse, tennis dresses. Some got away with wearing shorts, but skirts were more common. Personally, I think it’s absurd to wear a skirt for anything athletic. In tennis it seems totally nonsensical, and it’s plainly uncomfortable to stick a ball in your tennis underwear when you could so easily put it in a pocket. So I wouldn’t wear a skirt. I don’t think I ever in my life put one on. (Under duress, once of twice I would succumb to culottes or gaucho pants in place of a skirt, but that’s another story.) I only wore shorts; that, after all, is what boys wear. During the school year I played in various clubs around the City. The main one in which I trained enforced an all-whites rule. You could wear any combo of tennis attire, including t-shirts, but they had to be white. We always checked before coming to a given court, but luckily, none of the courts where I played enforced the rule that girls had to wear tennis skirts.

So now I’m 16 and a pretty fair tennis player. Dad thought it would be fun for me to try out to be a ball-person at the U.S. Open. I had a thrower’s arm (thanks to him) and could easily loft a ball across an entire court, which was a distinct requirement. If you couldn’t throw a ball the length of the court, you were cut. I was also good at fielding balls (Dad had trained me well), so after the first round, I was accepted. It was a rule, of course, that all ball-people had to wear the uniform of the athletic sponsor (e.g., Fila, Izod, Ralph Lauren, whatever). Boys got shorts and boy-cut shirts. Guess what girls got? I declined the acceptance into the ball-person ranks.

Much as I hate the idea of tennis skirts, I do greatly and deeply thank tennis for allowing me to wear sports bras all the time. Sports bras aren’t all frilly or lacy. They are made of sensible, non-chafing material. And even though I had no chest to speak of really, I wanted to hide what there was of it, and sports bras were tight enough to serve as a binder. They made me look flat-chested, and because I was coming to realize how much I wanted to rid myself of feminine attributes (no skirts, no lace), they were perfect.

My high school didn’t have a tennis team, but I continued to play tennis outside of school and got to be a better-than-pretty-fair player. College coaches were impressed enough with the video I sent (heh, VHS) with my application to want me on their team or at least wanted me to try out, and it didn’t hurt when the coaches nudged their Admissions Office to give me the thumbs up.

I chose to attend an all-women’s college, which, not surprisingly, promoted feminism and female power—intellectual, societal, political, athletic—plus, dude, I wanted a girlfriend and they are more queer friendly institutions. Imagine my amazement, then, when I learned that the girls on the tennis team had to wear tennis skirts. The field hockey team, a group of women who looked as though they could take on Roman gladiators, also had to wear skirts. I just didn’t understand. It made no sense whatsoever. What was this skirt tyranny all about? (Sorry; that was my own personal little rant there.) I resented not having the option of attire. I’m happy if a woman wants to wear a skirt to play; then she absolutely should be able to (and likewise, so should a male). On the flip side, however, she should also have the option of wearing shorts. Today, happily, these choices are more accepted. This is good; people should be able to choose what they wear without taboos and prejudice being applied.

Needless to say, I didn’t join the team there. I just couldn’t.

The game figured prominently in my youth and young adulthood. I don’t play tennis much anymore, but I do continue to hit tennis balls, mostly against walls. It’s good exercise/therapy after all, and I have to get some use out of all my shorts.

Demise of America–Tennis Edition (concluded)

I expect when I go the U.S. Open in a few days the experience will be similar to previous visits: I will get lost coming out of the parking lot and I will wonder where we are going to find dinner in Queens. But one thing will have changed since we first started going to this tennis tournament—the role of the ball people. Each tennis match has six ball people: two stationed behind each base line and two at the net. Their basic job is to scoop up the loose balls when not in play and get them to end of the court where the server is.

 When I started watching tennis, the American ball kids threw the balls. Those at the net only had to toss them from mid-court to the back wall, but those behind the baselines threw the entire length of the playing surface. To be a ball person, one had to be able to throw the ball, and I thought that was right because, in my opinion, real American athletes should be able to throw. In contrast, ball people at tournaments in other countries rolled the ball as if they were involved in some sort of kiddy bowling game. The ball kids beyond the baselines would bend down and roll the balls to the net boys and girls, who would then collect them and turn and roll them to the kids who were going to supply the servers. Of course, I thought, those Italian, French, English, and even Australian people had to do this because they could not throw. That thought made me proud to be an American where we can do so many things.

 The NBP has always been able to throw well and knows and played tennis. A natural to be a ball person at the U.S. Open, I thought. So one year I took the NBP to the ball-person tryouts at the National Tennis Center about six weeks before the Open. I had brought a ball for the NBP to warm up with, and we found a vacant court on which to practice. I had injured my shoulder long before and could not throw well, but I could get the ball back well enough for the NBP to be ready for the tryout. (I have written about how my damaged shoulder affected various aspects of my life, including not being drafted in the Vietnam war era, sexist health insurance, and having the shoulder replaced with an artificial joint. See For Preexisting Conditions, Spouse Means Wife – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog); Dominance – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog); Big Government Makes Killers – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog); When Government was BIG – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog)

The person in charge of the tryouts explained that people who could only throw from the net to the baseline and not the full extent of the tennis court might still be hired, but their odds were lessened since they would have to be stationed at center court instead of being able to fill any of the six ball person positions. The NBP did well and was better by far than most of the tryouts. Part of the reason was that the progeny was a gifted athlete, but also because many of the kids could barely throw. I had expected that many of the girls might not be able to loft the ball from one end to the other, but I was surprised at how few of the boys could. When I was growing up, almost all the boys I knew could throw reasonably well, but perhaps my memories were distorted. I hung out primarily with guys who played sports; maybe there were lots of boys I did not know who could not throw a ball sixty or seventy feet, but I still think they were not the majority. At the U.S. Open tryouts, however, it seemed that maybe only a quarter of the male teens could throw adequately.

 The NBP was going to be a shoo-in to be a ball person, and I already was trying to figure out transportation and other logistics, but then I started to feel some guilt. Unlike the progeny and me, many of those seeking the position seemed to be from the less affluent classes, and probably the weeks-long pay could be important to them and their families. Was it right that the NBP took a position that otherwise would have gone to one of them?

 At the time the NBP was identified as a girl, and as a ball girl she was going to have to wear a tennis skirt designed by one of the sponsors—Ralph Lauren or Puma or Adidas. And here I failed as a father. Even then, I should have known that skirt-wearing was a problem. The NBP, although not then openly identifying as non-binary, fiercely resisted skirts or other “girls” clothes. I should have gone to those in charge and at least asked if the NBP could wear shorts, but I did not think of it. A few weeks later, the NBP got a notice of the final tryouts but declined the invitation.

Somewhere between those tryouts twenty-five years ago and today, however, the role of the ball kids at the U.S. Open changed. They no longer throw the tennis balls, but as in Europe, awkwardly roll the balls as if they were in some sort of hurried, miniaturized lawn bowling event. They no longer seem American but Frenchified, fussy, foreign. I don’t know precisely when the change came or why. Of course it could be that wild throws might endanger spectators and it’s the fault of the insurance companies. But I believe that at least part of the reason is that fewer and fewer American kids can throw a ball as well as American kids ought to be able to do. Abilities have changed, and, apparently, so must American standards.

 Alas. I mourn the result.

(I urge you to read the guest post from the NBP on September 1 where he narrates some of his tennis experiences including the U.S. Open tryouts. I hope that I will not be blamed too much, even though I feel as if I could have been a better father.)

Demise of America–Tennis Edition

I will be going with the Non-Binary Progeny to the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, on the first Friday of the two-week event. As with baseball, football, basketball, and soccer, the venue has a large stadium where spectators sit in assigned seats to watch the action. I don’t remember the first time or how many times I have attended the Open (always with the spouse and/or the NBP), but I do remember that I have seen some great tennis there, even if some of the details are hazy. I saw Federer stave off defeat in a close, exciting third-round match, but I don’t remember his opponent. I saw Agassi play a match where his opponent (I don’t remember him either) could not control his toss and his frequent intoning of “Sorry” echoed through the stadium and Andre became increasingly irritated. I saw what I heard later described as a match for the ages as Venus Williams was beaten in a tiebreak in the third set (her opponent?). In one great match I do remember both players. It was Boris Becker against McEnroe, but in this case, it was Patrick McEnroe. Long and close. It started late in the afternoon and extended past the start of the evening session. Those folks with the night tickets were kept waiting until the match concluded. The family was with me. The tennis grounds are near Long Island Sound, and as can happen, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. It was cold, and the wussy members of the family kept asking, demanding, imploring, begging that we go home, but I made us stick it out. (They have forgiven me or forgotten about it or have repressed it or have made it into a silent volcano of resentment that might erupt someday.) Patrick, who had beaten Boris earlier that year at the Australian Open, lost in four sets, three of which went to long tiebreaks.

Our seats were seldom outstanding. The best tickets were unaffordable and even if we could have dug deeper into our pockets, almost all the good seats were snapped up in some mysterious process by fat cats and corporations before we plebians could even think about buying them. However, through the years, I have learned where I could get seats that seemed to work best for us—behind the end line with the sun to our backs in the section just above the tickets for the 1%. When I first got those tickets, they weren’t cheap, but not so extravagant that I thought I was buying a high-end used car. In recent years, however, the cost for this location has gone up and up. Even if I could afford them, their outrageous cost offends me, so this year the NBP and I will have tickets in the upper altitudes where the ball is aspirin-size and the plunk of a struck tennis ball seems to take a few moments to arrive.

There were some glorious years that were different. An acquaintance worked for a company that hosted hospitality tents for sporting events, including the Heineken Pavilion at the U.S. Open. Knowing I was a tennis fan, for several years she offered me Heineken tickets to the Open. There were great advantages to this. The seats were much better than any I had bought, and the tickets granted admission to the Heineken center. The tennis center grounds are asphalt or something like it, and if the day is warm, it can be brutally hot at ground level during the day sessions at the Open, as it was one year that the NBP and I had the special tickets. The Heineken beer pavilion, however, is air-conditioned. Stepping inside for only a few moments to get a break from the heat and humidity was blissful. Because we often stay eight hours or so at the Open, bathroom breaks are necessary. There is often a line…but not at the Heineken tent. Food is also necessary; there are concession kiosks under the stands, and food stalls around the grounds. They are pricey, and often the lines are long. But those of us blessed with the Heineken connection are greeted with long buffet tables with goodies for which we do not pay. Besides that you might get to hobnob with–well, gawk at–famous tennis players of the past. The Heineken tickets, thus, had many benefits topped by being FREE. Of course, we were spoiled by them, and everything since has been a bit of a letdown.

Watching the matches in the main stadium is only a small part of enjoying a trip to the U.S. Open. A major tennis tournament is different from other sports because in addition to the action in the center court of the large stadium, the tennis venue contains many lesser courts where several matches are going on simultaneously. Some are in smaller stadiums, but many of the courts are like those in a public park with a few rows of bleachers along the sidelines. Spectators can seek out contests throughout the grounds and from a few feet away see some of the best athletes in the game. (At one of those courts, I caught a ball that flew over the three-foot fence. Before tossing it back, I noticed string marks on it and other wear and tear unlike any of the balls I have ever played with. Not surprisingly, tournament balls are changed every nine games.) In addition, the outer grounds contain practice courts where spectators can watch stars getting ready for their next match.

On these outer courts where the NBP and I spend most of our time at the U.S. Open, we have watched singles with high-ranked players and those not seeded; doubles matches; junior matches; senior matches; wheelchair matches; and practice sessions. Much of this has been highly entertaining including a women’s doubles contest with players I had never heard of. One of the players was an attractive blonde–I believe from Lichtenstein–who was drawing special attention from both the NBP and me.

The tennis tournament is also different from other sporting events because the players walk through the grounds and the spectators to get to and from the outer courts. After a mixed doubles match, Martina Hingis, one of the NBP’s favorites, walked a few feet past him. Hingis shook his hand. The NBP was thrilled, reporting, “It was soft.” And I will leave for another day our encounter with Andre Agassi.

(concluded August 30)

You Can’t Get There from Here

Subways are one of New York City’s finest institutions. They can take you anywhere in the City you want to go–if you know how to use them. But they can be a puzzle even to native New Yorkers, and a dark and frightening labyrinth to out-of-towners. I had a chance encounter with some NYC visitors that illustrates my point.

A few years ago I went to a play on 48th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan. I took the 6th Avenue subway from my home in Brooklyn, got out at the 48th Street exit, and walked the half block to the Cort Theatre. Easy peasy. After the play, however, the downtown 48th street entrance to the 6th Avenue subway was closed. I walked a block to the next access, but it, too, was cordoned off for maintenance work. I heard workers on the other side of the taped-up turnstiles say to another frustrated person, “Maybe you can get in at 53rd and 5th.” This is a bit of a walk, and I thought there might be an easier way.

As I was deciding whether to make the hike, five young people were coming down the subway steps. Seeing they could not get in, “What the fuck?” came out. I said, “My words precisely.” I could hear them trying to figure out what to do. Being a helpful New Yorker as so many of us are, I asked them what train they were trying to catch. They said the M or the G. I told them that the G did not run in Manhattan. (Although I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about the subways and a licensed New York City tour guide, the M train remains a mystery to me.) They were trying to go to Brooklyn, as was I. I told them to go to the subway station at 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, take any train downtown, transfer at the 4th Street station, catch the A or C train there, and transfer to the G at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. I felt a certain pride in my precision and preceded them on the sidewalk down 6th Avenue. However, when I got to 42nd, I saw a notice that the entire 6th Avenue subway was closed that evening. The group of young people caught up with me. They started to look a little panicky when they saw the closure sign. 

I said that if they were up for a walk (which was clearly going to be necessary), they could go two long blocks over to 8th Avenue on 42nd, which is what I was going to do. As we headed west, I asked where they were from; South Florida was the reply. When pressed for specifics, I heard Boca and Miami. Further probing yielded that they were working on a “food justice” project in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. I asked if they were part of a religious organization. A woman said, “No, this was their college Hillel.” I smiled, as did some of them. 

Another woman fell into step with me and said that although she had lived in Florida since she was ten, she had been born in the Forest Hills section of Queens which she still visited frequently. I guess she was trying to impress me with her urban savviness, but…well, she failed.

I could tell that some of them were distrustful when I did not enter the entrance at 7th Avenue and 42nd Street that bore a sign for the A and C trains. I said that the 8th Avenue train was another block away and the sign led to a tunnel—good when it rained, but the street was better when the weather was nice, and it was a beautiful autumn evening. We kept walking.

When we finally got to the right subway platform, they looked relieved, but for some, that look of relief changed when I told them not to get on the first arriving train, which was a D, a 6th Avenue train that was now running on 8th Avenue tracks and would not take them to their transfer point. This is the sort of gobbledygook that befuddles even the most loyal subway rider. Finally, the correct train for both them and me came and we all boarded.

The guy who seemed most in charge said that he hoped to come back to NYC after graduation from Florida Atlantic University. He was a social work major. I said, “You must not be interested in money.” He replied that both of his parents were social workers.” When we parted ways after twenty minutes on the train, I shook hands with him and said, “Save the world.” I hope he at least found the G train.

Contemplation, Respect, Grief

I did today what I often do when I go by one; I visited and pondered a cemetery. Surely cemeteries have been created to be visited, and you should stop in, especially if it is a nice day.

Different cemeteries have different charms. Well-maintained ones are often beautiful. Lush landscaping. Mature trees. Birds. Squirrels. Even a rundown cemetery has the fascination of the wonder of lost stories and forgotten lives.

Although the cemetery I visited today contained the graves of many of the famous, I did not seek them out.  I never do. Instead I look at random inscriptions. 1880-1942. 1921-2010. Beloved. Mother. You Will Live in Our Hearts Forever. Somehow this gives me peace except for those like 2004-2008, 1909-1919, which produce a sadness for those who were left behind. In an old cemetery where the tombstones are so weathered that I can only guess at what the inscriptions read, I feel as if the scene is trying to impart some transcendental message, but I never catch it.

I don’t know if my interest in cemeteries existed before I worked in one. Until then my contact with the death industry had been sparse. My grandfather, who lived in the upper flat of our two-story house, died when I was in high school. (He died on his seventieth birthday. His son, my father, lived until 80. Ergo, by my impeccable logic, I get until 90.) Surely there must have been a funeral, but I have no memory of it.

But also when in high school, Mr. U died. Although I had no contact with Mr. U, he had been an important figure in education in my town and had a school named after him. I was among those tapped to be a student representative at a funeral-home ceremony for him. Up until then, I had seen dead people primarily on TV and movie cowboy shows, and these “corpses” always seemed as if they were going to sit up in a moment. But as I entered, there was not only a group of frightening adults (I did not know them, and I was shy; I tried to avoid talking even to parents of friends), but also an open casket with the remains, my lightning-quick mind concluded, of Mr. U. Adults tried to talk to me; I would have found this difficult no matter what, but I kept trying not to look over at the dead guy. And was that makeup?

My first real exposure to a cemetery came in the summer at the end of high school when I had a job in a local cemetery. There I did not look on the dead. Instead, I was the main watering guy. It was a hot, dry season. A portion of the cemetery did not have underground sprinklers; hoses were used to water the grass there. Each morning I would go around turning on spigots that had attached hoses. This took about ninety minutes, and then I made a second round. I turned off the spigot, walked to the end of the hose, moved the sprinkler to an unwatered patch, walked back to the spigot, turned it on, and then repeated this pattern at the next spigot until the end of the work day when I turned off the spigots. This might seem boring and lonely, but it was not to me. I had trouble talking with the adults who worked there, and I found the cemetery a place for peaceful contemplation. The work suited. (Except that the hoses were black, and black stuff got imbedded in the whorls of my fingers. My hands looked dirty, and that bothered me because this was the summer when I was sure that I was going to unbutton a blouse, maybe unbutton many blouses. But, I feared, not if my hands looked grossly dirty. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Lava soap was my friend. So was Boraxo. They didn’t really work.)

The cemetery’s full-time employees did the core work. They dug the graves; they lowered the casket after a service; they filled in the hole; they landscaped after the burial. Only once in a while, usually on a weekend when enough of the full-timers were not on call, did I assist. On one Saturday when I was helping, I was waiting for the mourners to leave the grave site so that we could shovel in and level the soil. Then we would be through, and I might have the time to make my baseball game. But two or three mourners lingered. I must have indicated my impatience, and one of the full-time workers quietly but firmly told me to have respect for those still there. That struck me. This physical laborer, who must have seen a comparable scene many times, could see beyond himself to the humanity of those others. His was not just a job to feed his family, but also one to serve those others. I was embarrassed for myself.

On another Saturday, after the family and friends had left, we went to the grave to do our tasks. The casket was suspended over the grave by one of those machines with canvas stretchers. A crank lowered the casket to the bottom of what really was a six-foot hole. Then one of the stretchers was detached from the machine and pulled under the casket and up to the other side. In the normal course, the soil that had been put to the side of the grave was shoveled into the hole, and the ground raked. A few days later, after the soil’s settling, this raw ground would be landscaped. But this time, after the lowering, the stretchers got stuck. The full-timers tried this and that, but the canvas strips were not freed. Finally, the crew chief looked at me, pointed at the hole, and told me to deal with the situation. Either free the canvas or toss the loose end back up so the casket could be raised, and the process started anew. To this fit youngster, seemingly no big deal. But–and it was big but–the grave was only a few inches wider and longer than the casket. I was not really jumping into a six-foot hole; I was really going to leap onto a casket. In an instant, an image stuck in my mind. My feet would crash through the casket, and I would be standing on a dead person. Or I would go through the lid, slip, and be lying face to face with a corpse. And other variations on this theme. Of course, these were false worries. The casket was not a pine box loosely hammered together. It was one of the Cadillacs sold by funeral homes to those who probably could not afford it. That lid could handle a lot more than my 148 pounds. It was going to hold more than that when the grave was filled in. I jumped, quickly freed the stretcher, and clambered out without incident. But those images remained. I had nightmares for days, maybe even weeks, and I won’t be surprised if in writing about this, that I don’t have nightmares again.

A few weeks later I was called to the cemetery office. The manager was there with a tiny, old man. A small box was on the counter. It contained the ashes of the man’s wife. The manager instructed me to carry the container to a specified place in the cemetery where a hole for the box had already been dug. I should lower the container and then help the man fill the hole.

I lifted the container. It was heavy. Very heavy. I stumbled a bit, but then moved on. I had never before carried human ashes, and I wondered how they could weigh so much. The man started to talk about his wife as we shuffled on. I half listened as I did generally with adults and tried to say as little as possible. Although I tried to hide them, he may have seen my struggles with the box and said that it was lined with lead. I wondered why he would have his wife cremated and have the remains in the kind of container meant to prevent decay. He talked more and more about his wife. I could almost touch his love for her. Then he started to talk about her death. It had been a slow, wasting disease. I could tell it had been awful. He said that by the end he barely recognized her. She did not look like the person he had been in love with for over sixty years. He said that he had wanted an open-casket funeral, but . . . Cremation had not always been the plan.

I had learned some stuff that summer. I was a teenage boy and (therefore) a wiseass, but I had been taught that I should respect the grief of others. After the man had tossed a handful of soil on the box, as I was about to shovel in more, I finally said, I guess you are going to miss her very much. He cried.

So, what is the proper response to this grief of others especially when they are relative strangers and you did not know or barely knew the loved one? Silence? Platitudes (“So sorry for your loss”)? I still don’t really know.

Snippets

The man being interviewed on the BBC was articulate. He wanted information about Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 attacks to be declassified. He said at least three times, “We want President Biden to be at our side. He should have our backs.” And I wondered: “How can he be at your side and also have your back?” All I could imagine was an awkward sideways hug, but even that wouldn’t do both simultaneously.

The headline asked a question of no importance to me: Is Jeff Bezos an Astronaut?

I was mildly surprised when the woman of about my age and education asked, “What is hash?” I was more surprised, when her husband—the couple lived in San Antonio–pronounced Jose with a jay sound.

“Were it not for bunglers in the manner of doing it, hardly any would ever find out he was laughed at.” Marquis of Halifax.

It is fair and right to question how our Afghani withdrawal was carried out. But it is also clear that after twenty years and more than a trillion dollars, the United States has failed in Afghanistan. Even so, I see on TV people who were involved in our Afghan policies—diplomats, intelligence officials, military officers—opine on that failure but never on their own responsibility for the overall debacle. All of these people helped produce the disaster. Why should anyone listen to them? They have been consistently wrong, even though they don’t seem ever to tell us what fools they were.

 “If I blunder, everyone can notice it; not so, if I lie.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The formulators of our Afghan policies fall into a group similar to those who believe Space Jam was a documentary.

“Two bears can’t live in one cave.” Old Russian proverb. Ben Mezrich, Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder.

How do those who believe in American exceptionalism explain our role in Afghanistan?

A recent Nova Scotia election was won by Progressive Conservatives. Again we should be mystified by Canada. How can there be a progressive conservative? Certainly none exist in the United States.

In August, a half hour after sundown, a cacophonous, stereophonic symphony of cicadas led by an invisible conductor breaks out. The spouse does not like this music. For me it is a sound of summer. When that music ends, summer is over.

“The amount of sleep required by the average person is about five minutes more.” Max Kauffmann

It Is, and Isn’t, a Fluke

I just finished reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which won the Booker Prize last year. It is a remarkable book, set in Glasgow a generation ago, but it is a hard read. The book centers on a family whose members all love in their own ways, but, because of the society in which they are trapped and the damage that has been inflicted upon them, they do harmful things to themselves and to each other. Stuart does not spare us the pain, but he also produces a book with so much human emotion that I simultaneously wanted to set it down because it is so sad and rush to the end because it is so compelling.  

When I returned the book to the library, I looked for something a bit lighter. I pulled out of the “New Mystery” section Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder. I was not familiar with the book or the series of which it is a part (“A Hannah Swenson Mystery with Recipes”) nor its author, Joanne Fluke, but I thought the title promised a pleasant read.

When I got it home, I noticed a blurb on the back that labeled Fluke “the queen of culinary cozies.” I often place the many mysteries I have read into different categories, such as a drawing-room mystery, or dark ones featuring  Scandinavian serial killers, or the sins-of-the-fathers mysteries as in Ross MacDonalds, or a literary mystery such as Dorothy Sayers or Tana French, but I have not known that there were “official” mystery genres, and I had certainly never heard of a “culinary cozy.” So I googled (or safaried or binged, I don’t remember which) and learned that this is an entire category of books presenting a foodie detective—a baker, cook, chef, gourmand—along with many mentions of food and accompanying recipes. Puns and food references sprinkle the titles.  

then looked up Joanne Fluke, which turns out to be a pseudonym for Joanne Gibson Fischmann, who also writes young adult thrillers and romances under other pen names. She has published about fifty books of which thirty or so are in the Hannah Swenson series. Since I have cooked or baked for much of my life, enjoy reading recipes, and often pass the time with a mystery, I thought that this accomplished author’s Triple Chocolate should be a good way to perk me up after Shuggie Bain.

And it was. The recipes were primarily for sweet baked goods, and they sounded delicious, but I am unlikely to make them. I know that my cardiologist would severely chastise me if he knew I was eating them. I apparently would need to buy Costco-sized drums of cream cheese, gallons of cream, and a whole lot of salted butter. (I was taught to use unsalted butter and add my desired amount of salt.) And for the non-pastry dishes, I would have to invest heavily in cans of condensed cream soups and buckets of shredded cheeses.

The writing style did not tax my reading powers. Few things were mentioned only once. Information was repeated often a page or two later and then again in a dozen more page and the prose, including the dialog, was stilted, which I would have edited. (An example: Mike had asked for another piece of pie. “Hannah smiled. If there had been any doubt that Mike liked her pie, it was certainly erased now. He’d already had two pieces and now he wanted another. ‘How about some Chocolate Hazelnut Toast Cookies instead? I just made them this afternoon and they’re great with coffee.’”) (Another example: Norman has just said that he wants to make a Boursin omelet. “‘With that marvelous cheese I love?’ ‘That’s right. I chopped up some shallots and I thought I’d make both of us three-egg omelets.’ ‘Perfect!’ Hannah said quickly, smiling at him. ‘I’d love that, Norman. I haven’t had an omelet in a long time and it sounds great! I don’t think I have ever had one with Boursin cheese and shallots inside.’”)

Although it is not billed that way, I felt as if this book was aimed for those in junior high school. Not surprisingly, the apparent homicide was resolved with everyone happy—the bludgeoned dead guy was a bad person and it was so clearly self-defense that the killer was not even charged.

I don’t know if this writing style is the same for all culinary cozies, but I am unlikely to read more to find out. Nevertheless, the repetitive, unnatural prose reminds me of another genre which, to my surprise, I have picked up more than once–Amish romances. My Poconos home is not in Pennsylvania Dutch country, but there is a weekly Amish farmers’ market. Through the years I have chatted with a few of the Amish and learned a little bit about them. However, upon a visit to Sarasota, Florida, I saw a boy and girl walking near the waterfront in what I took to be Amish garb. Then in various parts of town, I saw several men with beards and suspenders and women in long dresses and distinctive head coverings that signaled Amish. In driving around town, a mile or two from the Gulf, I found an enclave of modest houses on narrow streets with families in Amish attire getting around on three-wheel bikes.

When I asked about this, people told me that there was an Amish settlement in Sarasota. (It could have been old world Mennonites, but who can tell the difference?) They were driven down each winter in big buses and stayed until it was planting time up north. The town had several Amish restaurants, and they had good food, but the pie was always especially outstanding.

When I went to one of the restaurants, I stopped in the gift shop on the way out. I found a rack of paperbacks, many of which had a heavily clothed, attractive young woman on the cover. I read the back cover of one and found that it was a romance about some Amish young people. I enjoyed reading it mostly because I felt as if I was learning some about the Amish. For example, each congregation has different rules; some but not all could have a telephone booth on the property but not in the house. Also, Amish and Mennonite women can be distinguished by the style of head coverings, but I no longer remember the distinctions. The prose, like that in the culinary cozy, was repetitive and simple, and I assumed that this was necessary for Amish readers who had not received much formal education. The stories were pleasant with love winning out without clothes being shed. I read a few more of the Amish romances, and I thought I would ask the Amish at the Pennsylvania market if they wanted the books, but every time I went to buy corn, tomatoes, and watermelons, I forgot to bring them.

Now I am glad that I failed in what I thought were good intentions. I had noticed that the authors of the Amish romances I read were not Amish, although the women (all the books I read were written by women) claimed to have Amish friends who helped them understand the Amish culture. I did a bit of research which informed me that the authors of Amish romances are almost always evangelical Christians, and that the Amish are mystified by these romances partly because the books often misrepresent Amish theology.

I learned also that this genre (some call the genre “Bonnet Rippers”) has hundreds of titles. While the Amish do not buy these books, somebody does. One source said that the top three writers of Amish romances have sold over 24 million books (!).

And yet again, I wonder if I made wrong career choices.

The Wide World of Sports

          A friend asserted that China wins so many Olympic medals because it trains athletes to compete in events other countries don’t care about. She was not specific about which events she had in mind, and I assumed that her comment showed a provinciality based on the notion that if an athletic endeavor was not popular in the United States, or at least in Europe, it did not garner much international attention. And although this ultra-liberal woman would be shocked by the thought, a bit of chauvinism may have been behind her remarks, but they got me to thinking about international sports.

If a sport is truly so widespread that it has a strong interest throughout the world, then you would think that the top competitors in that sport would be dispersed relatively equally throughout all the countries. Not many Olympic sports fall into this category, however. Instead, for most events, a handful of nations dominate. When the United States is not in that dominating group, it does not necessarily mean that the sport holds little international appeal. This assumption made me wonder about worldwide interest in various sports.

I did in-depth research on the internet for about ten minute and found different, but similar, lists of the most popular sports in the world. Several ranked sports by the number of worldwide followers. For example, one source placed soccer first with 3 billion followers followed by cricket (2.5 billion), basketball (2.2), field hockey (2), tennis (1), volleyball (900 million), table tennis (850), baseball (500), American football/rugby (410), and golf (390).

Few American sports fans would list soccer as their most favorite sport, although that number may be increasing. Fewer follow cricket, even though the devotion to that sport is fervent in much of the world. That was hammered home to me at a Thanksgiving dinner which we shared one year with five or six of the spouse’s students from India. They exchanged stories about how holidays and other national events were treated in their various parts of that subcontinent. The practices varied widely, and they talked further about the two dozen or more national languages and the many fractures in their societies, but when asked what it was that made India one country, they responded immediately and simultaneously, “Cricket.” Some of them set alarms so that they could watch matches aired in the middle of the night. An obsession in many portions of the globe, few Americans, even devoted sports fans, understand the basic rules of that game much less its nuances.

Many of us at least know that cricket is popular in many places, but that list of the world’s most popular sports also included field hockey, table tennis, and volleyball in its top ten. I know a few people who are college volleyball fans, but its worldwide popularity came as a surprise. It has to be a tiny percentage of Americans who, outside of the Olympics, watch or read about field hockey or table tennis. It’s not particularly surprising, then, that other countries perform better in these events than our athletes.

          The popularity list, however, must be viewed with some skepticism. Who lumps American football and rugby together as that ranking did? They are clearly not the same sport at all. Another list, however, gives similar rankings for worldwide followers of sports although it gives different numbers for the fans. Soccer is still first, but according to this ranking, it has a billion more followers at four billion. So what is it? Three billion plus or minus a billion? That’s a pretty big spread. It lists hockey third after cricket, but it puts ice hockey and field hockey together as the same sport. (I don’t think so.) However, like the other list, it also places volleyball and table tennis in the top ten for international popularity. It has rugby at ninth without combining it with American football, but it claims that rugby has 475 million followers–65 million more than American football/rugby had in the other ranking. Absolute numbers aside, the lists indicate that a good portion of the world are fans of sports that do not routinely get much attention in the United States.

          Another source listed the popularity of sports not just by the number of followers but by other factors including, among other things, the cost of TV rights, the number of sponsorships, the number of professional leagues, the number of headlines a sport produces, and the sport’s social media presence. This generated a ranking where soccer was again first, but it was followed by basketball, cricket, tennis, athletics (what I would call track and field), rugby, Formula 1, boxing, ice hockey, and volleyball.

          Another way to measure the popularity of a sport is to count those who participate in it. One internet source again ranks soccer at the top with 265 million participants and another five million referees. Second place is held by badminton with 220 million, followed by field hockey, volleyball, basketball, tennis, cricket, table tennis, baseball/softball, and golf. Active Americans participate regularly in only a few of these games and thus seem out of tune with the world.

          These listings remind me that although I am a sports fan and continue to be a participant, my interest and knowledge diverge from fans around the world. I truly do not know much about athletics around the world, something that struck home a few years ago on a trip to Sicily. I had asked the server in a Palermo restaurant how he had learned such excellent English. He responded that he had studied it in school but became more proficient because of American teammates on his professional football teams. He rattled off names as if I should recognize them. I was surprised that there were so many Americans playing professional soccer in Italy. Only as the conversation progressed did I realize that he was talking about American football. I had not known that there even was American football played in Italy, much less a professional variety. He had played for teams in several Italian cities and proudly reported that he had been on the Blue team, which he told me is the Italian national team. He did not look big enough to play professional football in America, and he said that his weight had dropped from 215 pounds to 170 since he stopped playing. (He did not quote kilograms for his American football weight.) He said that he was not smart enough to play offense and asked me to guess what position he played. Thinking of professional football in America, I responded cornerback or perhaps safety, but he said that he had been an outside linebacker and was proud of his pass-rushing ability. I jokingly said that professional football must have made him wealthy. He laughed and said that waiting on tables paid more than playing American football. He had made only $1,000 a month (he did not give his football salary in Euros) but went on to say that he also got his food, a place to live, and the use of a car. He no longer played football. He gave up the game after several surgeries. Now he was working on being a power lifter.

          There is so much to learn about the world that I do not know, and that includes sports.

Snippets

I fell off my bike. I did not immediately check for bruises or broken bones. Instead, I did what any sensible person would do: I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed my clumsiness. No one had, so it was not a bad fall. But then I had to do the difficult thing at my age and get to a standing position. Of course, no one came to my assistance since there was no one around. I was happy about that.

As I was paying for a green tomato at the weekly Amish market, I asked Annie, who collects the money, if she had ever eaten a fried green tomato. She hesitated but then replied, “Yes.” I said, “Just one?” She answered, “There are better foods.” “Like what?” I asked. “Just about anything,” she responded.

I chatted with Amos before getting into my car. He asked where I lived, and I said that while I had a summer home in Pennsylvania, I had lived in Brooklyn for a long time. “City slicker,” he said with a smile. I asked if he had ever been to a city. He said only the outskirts and mentioned some New Jersey suburbs of New York. Even so, he was quite sure that he did not like cities: “Too much hustle and bustle. Too much activity. Too much rushing.” He told me that Annie was his sister and that she was eighteen and that he was sixteen. Helping Annie was a younger girl. Amos said that Emma was also a sister. He paused and looked as though he were adding and subtracting but couldn’t be sure of his calculations. Finally he said, “Emma is about twelve.”

Annie is a schoolteacher in her community’s one-room schoolhouse. She teaches in English. “It is required.” “Do you speak German at home?” I asked. “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

On the second half of the two-hour car trip, I scanned for radio stations. I stopped on one that was playing some sort of rock-style ballads. The music stopped, and a recorded voice said that there was good news. The man said that just because bad things happened, it did not mean you were a bad person and being punished by God. “Remember, Jesus was poor and suffered, too.” Although there is an assumption that Jesus did not have wealth, I don’t think anything in the Bible says that he was poor. Certainly nothing indicates that he had the distended belly of the malnourished. The announcer said that listeners should not assume they were bad people if they got a bad diagnosis or prognosis. Jesus, he again reminded us, went through bad things. Ya think? There was that crucifixion thing, but I am not aware that he was told that he had cancer or gall bladder disease.

This inspirational message was followed by five minutes of commercials. Pastor Wiggins in the last one stated that he was crossing the street, when a car turned onto Fourth Avenue without looking and nearly sent the religious man to Kingdom Come. He was put into an induced coma and suffered brain damage. After he got out of the hospital, a parishioner told Wiggins about this wonderful lawyer, who, for Wiggins’s medical expenses and pain and suffering, got him MONEY. The attorney was apparently a Gift from God that others could benefit from.

“Trust in God, her mother said, but never dance in a small boat.” Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler.