Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Wrong Hat, The Right Hat

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

January 2010

Remember how strawberries used to taste? If you do, you've been around as long as I have, because it's been an age since they've had any real flavor.
And what about tomatoes? The last time I sliced into one of those pulpy monstrosities my knife didn't even get wet.
Just when I was about to give up eating anything that didn't have to be cooked, my friend Phil told me he had figured out what's been causing the problem.
"Those farmers are wearing the wrong hat!" he said.
He pushed me into his jeep and drove us to a local produce fair at the edge of town.
"Follow me," he commanded.
In the course of an hour I was treated to the most delicious strawberries, figs, melons, peaches, apples, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other greens I had tasted in years.
"Now," he said triumphantly, "look around. See any plastic caps here?"
Indeed there weren't any.
Not one of the local growers was wearing the familiar, baseball type peaked cap that has become the mark of the big corporate farmer. Not one had that full crown of banded plastic netting on his head, its high, stiffened, cotton fronting, so often emblazoned with some company trademark.
Every one of the local growers was wearing a straw hat.
"Good old fashioned farm hat, the straw hat," said Phil. "There you have it. The big farmers who supply our supermarkets aren't wearing the right hat."
"It can't be the hat," I chuckled. "If anything, it's the logistical demands of distribution, the need to harvest crops before they're ready. It's the pressure of big loan payments. It's the accelerating requirements for efficiency and increased production," I went on. "That's what has turned our farmers away from growing foods that have taste to foods that are big, heavy and look good. It's the tragedy of our times."
"It's the hat," he repeated, "pure and simple. Chefs, police officers, the clergy. We are what our hats say we are. And the same goes for farmers."
"Never mind the hat," I said. "If there's any solution to this problem, it rides with the consumer. What we have to do is encourage people to insist on tree-ripened flavor and quality."
"It's the hat," insisted Phil.
"Excuse me," I said, not without a bit of sarcasm in my voice, "are you implying that all we have to do is get the farmer to change his hat and our troubles will be over?"
"Precisely," he said. "The straw hat will put the lid, so to speak, on the problem. It's big and clumsy. It'll slow the farmer down. Right now, with that handy adjustable strap in the back of the plastic cap, the farmer can go flying off in his high speed tractor, even in a big wind. The straw hat would come right off his head if he tried that.
"Now he can walk into his glass-walled, chromium-lined bank wearing that plastic representation of corporate mentality and even these days get that loan he's got himself hooked into needing.
"Imagine him strolling into a bank wearing a straw hat and trying to get credit for a million and a half. He'd be lucky if they let him open a checking account. The straw hat would keep the farmer small enough to once again think in good old-fashioned terms."
"You're making it sound rather easy," I said, trying a bit of irony.
"It's really not so easy," said Phil. "The farmer likes that home run image he thinks the plastic cap gives him."
We got into the jeep for the ride back.
"Once people make the farmer realize that they won't accept anything less than good tasting produce," I said, "the farmer will find a way to deliver it, whether he's big or small."
"You've got a lot of faith in the farmer," said Phil.
"I do," I said. Then I reflected on the delicious fruit I had tasted at the fair. "Maybe, just in the the meantime, mind you, I'll start buying some produce from the people wearing the 'right' hat."
Phil laughed, satisfied that he had made his point.

# # #

Friday, November 20, 2009


By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

December 2009

Actually, I like the daily routine. It frees me up, leaves my mind clear.

I don't wake up too early. I wash my face, brush my teeth, of course. Because deodorant irritates my skin, I shower or simply wipe under my arms with a damp cloth, which keeps me fresh throughout the day and evening. Never a complaint. There's also shaving the cheeks and trimming the beard, whether I'm going out or not.
Breakfast is my responsibility. My wife does dinner and doesn't eat lunch. The night before, I plan the breakfast and my midday meal. I use the pages of a 3x5" pad for this, as well as for my to do list for the day, after checking the calendar. I don't trust my memory any more.

Then there's the day. The morning stretching and exercises. The pills to take, the mail, the computer, the newspaper, shopping for food and supplies, maintenance.

If there are chores, like taking out the garbage, dusting or vacuuming, they get worked in somehow. I'm not rigid about them. After a while they get assertive. Once a week there's the laundry. We have machines in the garage. I make sure I have enough quarters. That's another thing that gets on my list. I get four rolls at a time, so I have a cushion.

There's the doctor and the dentist to schedule.

So you ask, don't I ever do anything important? I do. I do. I am a writer, and there is always a project, projects, I should say. Some writers, some artists, sacrifice their daily life, even their family life, for their art. Perhaps my talent, such as it is, isn't worth the sacrifice. Is that small of me?

Maybe I could have done more. Would that make a difference?

Certainly, if my work brought the world to a better place. Health care for those not covered, help for the homeless, the economy, peace, a light that opens the way for the lives of others. Those might be reasons to let the house and its occupants fall apart -- for the greater good.

What does quotidian mean anyway? "Occurring every day. Commonplace. Ordinary."

I don't do everything every day, but I guess I'm programmed, though a bit of delay now and then doesn't hurt. Do I leave time for serendipity? There's movies, theater, lectures, books, music, museums, gardening, recreation, friends, family, and my work of course.

Get maid service to do the quotidian? That's an option, I suppose, but who'd pay the bills, balance the checkbook, manage the credit card statements, get gas, wash the car? Maybe someday when we can't turn the mattress. It's getting heavy, but so far we can manage. My wife has her photography, and is able to do her quotidian part, more than her part, in fact.

I'll bet there are a lot of people for whom the quotidian isn't so bad. Those folks don't want to let their home life disintegrate. I don't think it's compulsiveness. For me it's just a welcome sense of control that gives me tranquility, some shielding from an otherwise chaotic, alarming world. I do wonder sometimes, though, about those people who just let things go.

# # #

Monday, October 19, 2009

Early Retirement

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

November 2009

My friend Dave is the youngest in our crowd, but he was first to get a job, first to get married, first to have kids, and six months ago the first to retire.

"Early retirement, heh?" I said when he told me the news. "I knew you were making a bundle, you rascal." Now starts a life of debauchery, mindless travel and excess, I envisioned, leading to boredom, anxiety, desperation and premature demise.

Dave insisted he wasn't loaded.

"They've forced you out. Discrimination!" I yelped.

It wasn't anything like that, he said. It was his own decision to retire.

The poor guy, I thought. He must be terminal.

"You can tell me, Dave," I said, putting my arm around his shoulder. "How much time have you got?"

He guessed about thirty-five to forty years. His father had lived to be ninety-two and his mother was in good shape.

"You're going into business! You've invented a substitute for soap!"

He smiled.

"Hated your boss's guts, didn't you?"

No, he said. He had worked very hard all his life. He had seen to his children's education, and at last they were on their way, each in his or her own style. Now he just wanted to do whatever he felt like doing.

I had to save him. He was my friend.

"OK," I said, "go through your drawers and get rid of every pair of socks you haven't worn in two years. Then, after you enjoyed your little respite, take a serious look at your future."

What else can you say when your pal, barely into his fifties, says he's wrapping it up?

The first thing he did was to take a six weeks trip to Spain with Betty to study Spanish. I saw him briefly when they got back, but then they took off for Cleveland to see family and old friends. We talked now and then but not that much. Finally, last weekend, I was able to stop in to see how he was doing I prepared myself for the worst. How much free time would a person who's worked all his life be able to take?

As I entered his house an exquisitely delicious aroma filled my nostrils.

"Betty baking?" I asked.

No she was out. That's a snack loaf he has been experimenting with and it's just about ready.

I regarded him suspiciously until I noticed how well he looked. The crease on the left side of his face was gone. The rims of his eyes were a healthy pink instead of the raw red I had gotten used to seeing over the years. He seemed trimmer and sort of bounced on his tennis shoes as he moved about the room.

"So what have you decided to do?" I asked.

Well, he thought he'd continue with the Spanish. Such a beautiful language.

"O.K., O.K., but what are you going to DO?"

Did I mean tomorrow? He didn't know. Maybe take a walk in the woods. Did I want to play some golf or go to the game with him?

"What are your plans, David?"

He'd been doing some volunteering. He liked that.

"Good, good, but what are your PLANS?" I repeated.

Then he told me about the four men he had seen at a cafe on the island of Kos ten years before. Nearby was the great plane tree, a descendant of the one under which, it was said, Hippocrates had taught medicine to the youth of ancient Greece. The men were sitting on simple wooden chairs at a simple wooden table. He thinks there was a famous painting of a scene like that. Each had a glass in front of him, though it was ignored for the most part. They talked, sometimes earnestly and sometimes perfunctorily, and they laughed and they looked at the people passing by. The next day they were there again.

Dave said he had thought about taking a picture of them, but decided that if he did it would probably wind up in an envelope someplace and he'd forget all about it.

"Are you saying you want to sit around and just do -- nothing?"

"Is that nothing?"

"It's a waste. You'd atrophy. After a while you wouldn't know what time it was."

I looked at my watch. "It's a quarter to two," I said.

He knew.

"It's Saturday."

He knew.

We shook hands.

"If you ever need me," I said, "if ever you need a job. If ever you start chewing off your fingernails, I want you to call me."

He assured me he would.

Well, I thought, it's only a few months. Let's see how he's getting along a year or so from now.

Imagine. Retiring early and doing whatever you want to do. That can't be good for you, can it?

# # #

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Only When I Laugh

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

October 2009

As you may know, I have been a writer of humor all my life.

I've laughed, I've giggled, I've laughed so hard I've almost choked. So what was I laughing at?

The loss of jobs? The houses all but gone? The tent cities? The futures shattered? The battles against hopelessness? What was so funny? The rising cost of food? The fraud? The so-called health care debate? The big lies? What passes for music? Afghanistan? Iraq? The shouting of newscasters? The mindless speeding of cars in TV commercials? The lack of common courtesy?
The lack of taste?

Why did I always seem to have such a bellyful of laughs? Was it that I didn't care? Was it that I was ignorant? That I saw how difficult it was to get the right thing done? That I saw today's crazy human behavior as remarkably similar to the experiment I witnessed in a college psychology class -- where the environment of laboratory rats was made to be crazy, resulting in crazy rat behavior?

Or was it simply that I laughed because if I didn't laugh I might go crazy myself?

# # #

Monday, July 20, 2009

What I Don't Know

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

September 2009

They say that when you reach a certain age you realize that wisdom is knowing what you don't know. If so, I am very wise. The trouble is that there are far too many things I don't know. Here's a partial list:

- - How television works.

- - What "a 30% chance of showers" means.

- - What to say when a stranger calls during dinner to sell you something.

- - What my wife is thinking.

- - How to make money.

- - Why we see only one side of the moon.

- - Why there's never enough time.

- - Which witness in a jury trial to believe.

- - How some people get elected.

- - Why someone else wins the lottery.

- - Why after a coin can land heads up twenty times the odds on the next toss are still 50-50.

- - How to sell something.

- - How to negotiate.

- - How long it takes to get sick from something you ate.

- - The difference between hysteria, paranoia and schizophrenia.

- - Why so much music ignores the ear.

- - Why so much poetry can't be understood even by people with a good education.

- - Why laughter is so good for us.

- - Why so many people cheat, steal and lie.

- - Why so many people drive so aggressively and with such lack of courtesy.

- - Why so many people always seem to be on the phone.

- - Why so many people don't return telephone calls.

- - How to harvest alfalfa.

- - Who makes up all those metaphors for politicians.

- - Why some people talk so much.

- - Why some people never listen.

- - Why the stock market goes down when interest rates go up.

- - Why the stock market goes up when interest rates go down.

- - Why the stock market goes up or down altogether.

- - What a vitamin is.

- - What the smallest particle is.

- - Why some people grow old and others remain kids.

- - How to live with injustice.

- - Why logic has a dirty name.

- - Why following directions doesn't work.

- - Why other people don't know how to water your plants.

- - How to be one of the boys.

- - What Infinitesimal Calculus is.

- - How to speak a foreign language.

- - Why there are always at least two sides to every question.

- - Why some people have no sense of shame.

- - Why there are so many species.

- - How Mozart could possibly have composed so much, so magnificently.

- - Why it's fun just taking a walk.

- - How a ship floats.

- - How an airplane stays up.

- - How we can learn to ride a bicycle.

- - Why we like some people but not others.

- - Why some people like us and others don't.

- - When to say yes and when to say no.

- - How to build a house.

- - How to play a musical instrument.

- - How to play bridge.

- - How to fix a noisy radiator.

- - Why so many men don't flush the toilet in the rest room.

- - Why naming something makes us think we know what it is.

- - What it's all about.

If there is anyone out there who can enlighten me about any of these things, please write me without delay. If, on the other hand, you have a number of things that you don't know yourself, shoot me a copy of your list. I don't know what I will be able to do about it, but perhaps a sharing of our ignorance will have a salutary effect.

# # #

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Song of The Sexual Revolution

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

August 2009

"Excuse me, but do you think the sexual revolution is over?"

The question came from a mature gentleman sharing the small restaurant table with me. He was looking at me earnestly, his thick gray eyebrows raised in polite expectation.

I was just about through with my lunch and not altogether surprised that a stranger would reveal such an intimate thought. There are many friendly little restaurants in my town, and it is not unusual to talk about personal matters with someone you don't know, protected as we are by the proverbial shield of anonymity.

I replied that I had been married for a good many years, and although I had of course been aware of the sexual revolution I could not speak with authority about it.

"I was thinking of joining it," he said, "but I wonder if it's too late.

"To tell the truth," he went on, "I never got into it because I kind of liked the way things were before it started. With sex not quite being so much in the open there was more of a mystery about it. We had romance in those days. One looked forward with anticipation to a goal that was not too easy to attain. There was more to long for, so to speak. One could buy flowers, dream, fantasize.

"One could be moved by songs like IF THIS ISN'T LOVE, EMBRACEABLE YOU, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE,

"The droll risque argument that was presented by LET'S ALL DO IT had some validity, some point."

He chuckled a bit nervously.

"Then there was the other side of it," he continued. "Not that we were prudes, but we could get a good laugh out of sex. I mean you could tell light, bright sexual stories and hit someone's funny bone. You could hint at sexual misconduct and actually hear giggles. It was fun.

"I guess the fifties couldn't last forever."

He took a quick sip of his glass of wine.

"On came the sixties, the Flower Children and the revolution. I was tempted to become a foot soldier and march right in. One doesn't want to be left out of what's happening in one's time. But I held off.

"And then came the seventies and the eighties. Talk about ANYTHING GOES!

"The pill, teen-age pregnancy, abortion, the single parent phenomenon, explicitness - - it got confusing. And the language! It was just plain filthy. To get a laugh at a party you had to appeal to a sort of humor that was not really funny.

"In spite of all that, I recently considered going for it. The cure for VD had been found, and the very idea of consenting adults doing whatever they felt like doing with impunity, had some appeal. And then came the disaster - - AIDS. That stopped me cold.

"But now I'm thinking that today, with sexual education at a new high, with the concept of safe sex understood by so many people, I might be able to don the colors and charge ahead - - if it's all still going on, that is."

There was an unmistakable lack of conviction in his tone.

He looked at me, waiting for an answer that unfortunately could not be forthcoming.

Just then a woman about thirty, slender, with curly, chestnut hair and sympathetic blue eyes approached our table. The restaurant was crowded and we had the only free chair. I suggested that he ask her if it was all over. She sat down. He hesitated, but only for a moment.

"Over? The Sexual Revolution?," she replied with a friendly smile. "Why it's only just started. The biological clock is ticking and America is on to something new and exciting. All those years of adolescent self-indulgence and mindless promiscuity are done with. LOVE WALKED IN for me and all I can say is 'S WONDERFUL!"

The old gentleman looked hard at the woman for what seemed a full minute, and then suddenly lit up as though coming from under a cloud.

"You mean people are dancing CHEEK TO CHEEK?"

"Oh yes," she said. "And if they're not, they want to."

He thanked her, and bidding me farewell, strode off whistling a happy tune.

# # #

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Good Old Fashion

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

July 2009

My friend Phil has loosened fashion's grip on me.  And not a moment too soon as I consider the frightening prospect of having to replace any part of my wardrobe.

He walked in the other day, looking like a million.

He was wearing a smart, single breasted, gray glen plaid suit, white cotton dress shirt with spread collar, deep red silk tie with tiny black dots and a pair of shining, wingtip black oxfords.

"New outfit?" I asked.

"Not on your life!" he said, smiling.  "I got these clothes right out of my closet.  The suit is Jacques Roy, Paris.  Bought it in Barney's New York in 1976. The shirt is eleven years old.  The tie, fourteen.  And the shoes, twenty. That's years, man, years."

"Is there a message there?"

"I just put on this combination to make my point.  I'm not suggesting that you should match the age of your clothing to your birth date.  It's the principle of the thing.  Take your old clothes out of retirement.  That's the way to beat fashion."

An interesting idea, I mused.  But can it work?

My mind raced to the half dozen old suits I had waiting unworn on shaped hangers.  The piles of shirts I couldn't wear out if I lived three lifetimes.  The rows of ancient shoes with hardly a mark on them.  And the ties.  How in the world had I accumulated so many ties?

The combined age of my clothing would suit Methuselah.

"I've got plenty of old clothes," I said,  "but..."

"But what?" he interrupted, opening my closet door.  "Look at that suit.  Perfect condition."

"That's my Marty Sullivan," I said proudly. 
"Tired of it?"

"Actually, I love that suit.  I bought it for a song in eighty-one, but have been afraid to wear it.  A shame," I admitted.  "It's as light as a feather, and can be worn all year 'round."

"Elegant!" he said.  "Love the vest."

"Yes, but the jacket has a two and five eighths inch lapel."

"Three and a quarter.  Three and seven eighths.  Four and a half.  Why should we care about the width of a lapel?"

"Some of my trousers are tapered below the knee," I said.  "Some are flared."

"And some, I'll bet, are straight," he said, laughing mischievously.

It was an exhilarating moment as I thought I might be able to wear these great clothes that I've cherished over the years.  But it all weighed heavily on my mind.  Could I stop believing that the day of my old clothing had passed?

Phil must have understood my dilemma.

"I say to those who feel they have to dress down, go ahead if you feel you must dress to conform.  Forget who you really are.

"Guys like you and me should dress for ourselves.  You wear your Marty Sullivan.  And I'll wear my Jacques Roy.  We'll stay trim so we can fit into them, and we'll knock each other dead in the process.

"The alternative," he went on, as he made for the door, "is to go out today and pay eight hundred and seventy-five dollars for an off-the-rack, two-piece wool and synthetic blend suit, sixty-four dollars for a shirt that doesn't even have your exact sleeve length, forty-five dollars for a tie and over a hundred for a pair of shoes!

"Or worse, drop your self respect and get a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt.  Ugh!" 

Flushed with excitement, after Phil left, I wondered what it will be like when I come out of the closet with my Marty Sullivan suit, my Ascot Chang custom shirt, the foulard I got years ago in Los Angeles and my brown English loafers, class of seventy-nine.

Will my age be showing?

So be it!
                                                                         # # #

Monday, May 18, 2009

Too Many Money Belts

As a Traveler in Italy I Find Out That Worrying 
About Theft Can Steal From the Fun

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

June 2009

"You're going to Italy?  Watch out for the gypsies -- and those bag snatchers on their scooters!"

It wasn't the first time my wife and I had gotten such hair raising advice.  On our way to Ecuador and Peru a few years ago, we were told to avoid crowds in outdoor markets, and not to take trains or go into the Andes.  Pretty hard to do if you're going to Otavalo and Machu Picchu. And another time, friends warned us not to be out after dinner in St. Petersburg, White Nights to the contrary. 

Mercifully, nothing unpleasant happened in either of those trips, but now, evidently, we were about to travel to a country that had a nasty reputation for trouble.

Preparing to go to Rome, Umbria and Tuscany, I found that even the guidebooks rang the alarm about security.  They advised us to be very careful with our cash, traveler's cheques, credit cards and passports, not to carry a camera hanging loosely on a shoulder, and to have back-up photocopies of key documents handy.

My head had already been filled with well advertised pictures of thievery plaguing the unwary traveler in hotel rooms, on the beach and in restaurants.  So I thought I'd better look beyond the Botticellis, Bellinis and Michelangelos I was going to see, and think about more than the Chianti Classico, antipasto and pasta I would be enjoying.

Did not the Italians of old fortify their towns with stone walls?  Were not yesterday's protective steps taken by Siena, Perugia and Orvieto saying something to the tourist of today?  What should my own high ground be in preparation for a pilgrimage to yes, the land of Dante and Verdi, but also -- let it be whispered -- the Mafia?  How could I protect my wife and myself and our belongings from the dark side of our beloved Italians?

Giving in to my fears, I set about trying to develop schemes that would outsmart the wrongdoer, from the opportunistic to the most determined.

First, my person.  Under my shirt I would wear two money belts, one with the pouch in the small of my back, and the other on my stomach, where I could occasionally rest my  hand protectively.  I would also wear a hidden pocket, which would hook through my belt and flip inside my pants to rest next to my appendix.  This would be my accessible in and out facility. My pants pockets would hold only tissues, comb and less than ten dollars in euros.

I insisted that my wife wear a small money belt around her waist under her blouse, pointing out that the type that hung from the neck would be subject to a harmful wrenching by a heartless thug.  I urged her to secure any bag she might carry by keeping its strap across her body, and that the contents be dispensable  She resisted, but resigned herself after hearing the argument I presented based on the frightening reports of pickpockets, hordes of children who would surround you, and desperate mothers with starving babies in their arms, who would burn their fingers into your flesh until you surrendered your valuables.

I made lists of serial numbers, flight numbers, and critical telephone numbers to call in case of loss.  I took out insurance.  And then, to go the guidebooks one better, I made three sets of photocopies of the lists and of our important documents, one to carry in my day pack, one for the luggage and one to leave home for safe keeping.  I developed a maze of file folders and envelopes to hold all these papers, and confuse anyone trying to poke through my things.

As the day of our departure approached, I was so on edge I had barely enough wits to pack my clothing and toiletries properly.  My wife went about her own preparations with equanimity, something I wished I could afford, though I told myself I was justified doing what I was doing for our mutual safety.

In my last minute preparations I memorized "113," the police emergency telephone number, and reviewed the Italian vocabulary in my phrase book that I would need to help thwart, overcome or otherwise deal with danger.  Aiuto! (Help!)  Al Ladro!  (Stop Thief!)  Se ne vada! (Go away!)  Mi lasci in pace!  (Leave me alone!).

Then, with one foot out the door, I got a brilliant idea.  I'd take along the old cane I had hanging in the closet.  I recalled once reading about an eighteenth century traveler being very cautious when he noticed a man walking toward him with a stout stick in his hand.  I'd carry my cane, and perhaps there would be a similar message in it for some potential trouble maker.

And so I was ready!

And what happened?  Niente!  Per niente!

Maybe the cane had something to do with it.  Some people seemed to feel sorry for me, thinking I was disabled.  A few gave me a wide berth, perhaps thinking I could be aggressive. Most ignored me as just another guy with a cane.  It had some use helping me walk up steep streets in hill towns and up some steps in Rome.  After a while, though, it was simply one more thing to carry, and a nuisance in restaurants.

As for gypsies, I saw a half dozen colorfully dressed smiling young children one day on the Piazza Barberini about thirty yards away.  No one was paying any attention to them.

Everywhere there was so much traffic and so few sidewalks that the scooters and motorcycles, which were so loud you could hear them coming two blocks away, had all they could do to avoid hitting pedestrians, or getting swatted themselves by a Fiat or Lancia.  I soon got tired shoving my wife protectively against the building walls, especially since it only encouraged her to window shop, and joined the natives walking blithely down the street as vehicles streamed by.

I had been avoiding groups of men congregated on corners and in piazzas until I lost patience wandering without directions, and discovered how open they were to an inquiry, and with what animated delight they waved me toward my destination.  How many times I enjoyed hearing their musical Prego to my grateful Grazie.

Whatever city or town I was in, people were gabbing, laughing, shopping, going about their business, eating ice cream or kicking a ball.  They had far more on their mind than my pockets.

Maneuvering through the streets and seeing the sights during the warm days, I sweated, drenched in my money belts.  When I needed some cash or a credit card I had to go through contortions to get them.  I suffered, but I persisted.  Then one day, my wife said she had been eating so much she could no longer get into her tan slacks, which I knew she loved, if she had to wear her money belt.  I was almost ready to put on hers,, too, but at that point decided that I had had it with money belts, and put them in the sack I was carrying.

I was feeling pretty good about easing up, and even joined my wife shopping.  I had to cash some travelers cheques, and went into a bank, passing through its revolving security chamber that slowly lets one person in and out at a time.  But at the counter I couldn't find my passport. A catastrophe!  Someone had stolen my passport!

"Calm yourself," said my wife.  "It's probably misfiled."

I emptied my money belts.  Gone!  Back at the hotel room, I opened every folder and every envelope.  Nothing.  The passport was supposed to be in the money belt I had worn in the small of my back.  Why oh why had I not kept it on instead of carrying it?

"Maybe it's here in your sports jacket."

"Why would it be there?" I cried.  "Would I leave my passport hanging in the closet?"

"I don't know.  Look."

And so it was, together with my wife's.  I had been wearing the jacket when we checked in several days before, and had put the passports in the breast pocket when the hotel clerk returned them to me after we registered.  They had been there in the closet since then, and for all I know could have remained there unbothered.

It turned out I was to have no terrible news to convey about the trip, no frightening reports to add to the warnings I had received, only tales of fun and pleasure.

One of our last stops was Lucca.  Surrounding the city, which is set on a fertile plain before a range of soft mountains, are its broad, ancient protective ramparts, now a beautiful elevated park, the Passeggiate delle Mura.  On its tree-lined avenue, forbidden to automotive traffic, we found ourselves among joggers, strollers, lovers and cyclists enjoying their city.  I twirled my cane playfully, feeling tutto va bene.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dad Need Not Apply

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

May 2009

Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older

When Ben Sims, 57, showed up earlier this year for a job interview at a company in Richardson, Tex., he noticed the hiring manager - several decades his junior - falter upon spotting him in the lobby.

"Her face actually dropped," said Mr. Sims, who was dressed in a conservative business suit, befitting his 25-year career in human resources at I.B.M.

Later, in her office, after several perfunctory questions, the woman told Mr. Sims she did not believe the job would be "suitable" for him.  And, barely 10 minutes later she stood to signal the interview was over.

"I knew very much then it was an age situation," said Mr. Sims, who has been looking for work since November 2007, a month before the economic downturn began.

The recession's onslaught has come as Mr. Sims and many others belonging to the post-World War II baby boom generation -- the demographic burst from 1946 to 1964 that reshaped the country -- remain years from retirement.  But unemployed boomers, many of whom believed they were still in the prime of their careers, are confronting the grim reality that they face some of the steepest odds of any job seekers in this dismal market.

The New York Times

Finding a job these days is hard enough.  If you're getting on in years, it can be a nightmare.

Take the case of my old friend Phil, whose bizarre tale of a recent job interview sent a shudder through my creaking bones.

"This young woman," he said, "thought I was her father."

"Do you look like him?" I asked.

"Must be.  During the interview she kept interrupting me with the most inappropriate remarks. Asked me how I had met mom.  Had it been love at first sight?  Said she had always been curious about it.

"I wondered what was going on, of course, but decided to let it pass, and emphasized that I was a team player, loyal to my supervisor.  She said she had gotten so used to obeying me through the years she'd feel funny about telling me what to do.

"I showed her the new product introduction plan I had developed that increased the company's market share twenty-seven percent. She responded with a chuckle about the time I had spanked her for speaking sharply to her mother.

"I read her the part of the speech I had written for the CEO  that had brought the National Association of Manufacturers audience to its feet.  She pulled out a picture taken at camp and her eyes moistened.  She said she'd always love me for my understanding about that boy that summer.

"I went through the budgets I had managed, the revenue I had increased, the expenditures I had cut.  She said she'd never forget how I had taught her the value of a dollar, though it had been painful when I had put the lid on her allowance."

"Wait a minute," I said.  "Why didn't you get up and walk out?"

"I thought she was testing me," said Phil, "to see how I would stand up under intergenerational stress.  So I continued.

"I showed her the personnel evaluations I had received, the commendations.  I was about to go into the details of one of my award-winning projects when suddenly her attitude started to change.  Her face took on a cold, determined look, and she accused me of being disingenuous.

"She said I was up to my old tricks, trying to control her life.  She was not going to allow me to dictate to her.  She was a grown woman now.

"Well, I couldn't let that go unchallenged.

"I never did any such thing, I said to her. You were brought up to be independent and assertive.  Your mother and I stood by you and supported you in whatever you wanted for your future.

"Now she was weeping.  What could I do?  I put my arm around her.  She sobbed,  'Oh dad, dear dad.  It's so good having this out at last.  I can't tell you how much this meeting has meant to me.'"

"You pretended you were her father?" I exclaimed.

"I was momentarily carried away.  She seemed so vulnerable.  She dried her eyes and told me I was one of the finalists for the position.  She'd be in touch.  We shook hands, and I left."

Surely Phil was stretching a point with this fantasy, but it was still very scary.

"So then what?" I asked.  "Did you hear from her?"

"I got a letter a week later," said Phil, "thanking me for my time and complimenting me for my background and achievements.  The company had found an individual, however, who did not have my depth of experience but could be expected to 'grow with the position.'

"I felt like sending her up to her room without any supper."

"I guess they were looking for someone at an entrance level," I said.  "You were overqualified."

"That wasn't it," said Phil philosophically.  "People don't mind hiring a brother, or a son.  They simply have too hard a time hiring the old man."

"Next time you should try to get interviewed by someone closer to your own age," I said.

"That's an idea," he agreed.  "Hell of a thing, though, isn't it?"

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dusting Time

Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

April 2009

Last week, after years of happy marriage, my wife, in the spirit of the times, gave me an ultimatum.  From now on, she said, she would no longer do both the cooking and the dusting.  I was to take on one of them, and I had my choice.

If the truth be told, I have always had trouble seeing dust.  Under the circumstances, however, it was clear which responsibility I had to assume.  The woman simply cooks too well.

The question was how would I know when it was time to dust.

Almost immediately, it seemed, my wife started wringing her hands and shaking her head. Before I knew what was happening, she had placed a rag before me.

When my wife would dust she would whiz through the house, grabbing things and setting them down as though she were in a race.  I'm the kind of person who likes to take the time to do things right.

I took off my rubber-soled shoes and put on a pair of leather-soled shoes to avoid creating static electricity that would make the dust stick to the furniture. Then I put on my glasses, in case there would be something to see.  I would not use a feather duster.  Sure it would be easy to wave the thing like a wand over a table or a delicate ceramic, but that would simply circulate the dust.  You had to wipe things carefully if you wanted to do a proper job.

I picked up the rag and painstakingly began.

Before long I came upon the carved old wooden watchman my wife and I had bought in Oberammergau more than thirty-five years ago.  I moved my rag covered finger over his thick gray mustache and into the intricate lantern he carries to light his way on his rounds.  It brought me back to the hills of Bavaria and our beat-up little blue Volkswagen on one of the marvelous trips we were able to make during the year I was a student in Paris.

As I wiped the sawbuck table in the living room I was once again bargaining with that big red-headed guy we got it from in New Hope.  We had been married about five years and I had my first real job.  There was so much ahead of us then.

The Greek chess set didn't take me back to Athens so much as to the time my young nephew checkmated me in three moves.  I'm still trying to figure that out.

At the bookshelves my dust rag caressed the old bindings of WAR AND PEACE, ULYSSES and THE UNIVERSE AND DR. EINSTEIN, recalling for me the struggle to understand what Tolstoy, Joyce and Lincoln Barnett were saying.

I put on a recording of Rubinstein playing the Mazurkas of Chopin, to accompany my labors. Then I played a little SOUTH PACIFIC, MY FAIR LADY and THE MOST HAPPY FELLA.  They reminded me of those golden Broadway years, buying the tickets to the shows, seeing them with our friends.  Old shows now.  And old friends, some still here, some gone.

I worked the rag over the frame of the Clavé print and thought of the auction where we bought it, surprising ourselves by refusing to give in when the bidding got tough.

Then there were the snapshots of children, of parents, of grandparents.  And my wife's photographs.  The three men and three women bathing in the Ganges at sunrise, taken from the small boat we had hired.  The old woman, with her dark, creased face, sitting in prayer before the stupa in Boudhanath.

I almost forgot myself, dusting off these memories, when I smelled a wonderful meal being prepared.  In a half hour or so I was finished and sitting down with my wife at the dinner table.

"This is delicious," I said.  "What is it?"

"Can't be duplicated," she replied.

"You used leftovers, right?"

"Yes," she said.  "Thanks for doing the dusting."

"My pleasure.  Wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."

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Monday, February 23, 2009

More Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband

A man's-eye view of the state of matrimony, with some of the unexpected things that make it work.

Reprinted from McCall's
Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

March 2009

1. Nothing can rival home life.
2. Being yourself is always best, no matter how painful.
3. It is safe to react honestly to returnable merchandise.
4. It is bad luck to go out of the house without your wedding band.
5. Women have to be wakened with extreme care.
6. If you've got to burn anything, make it your bridges.
7. Women are not always thinking when they are silent.
8. Nobody is best at everything.
9. A woman's cross is her head of hair.
10. Living with a woman is a little like working backstage.
11. Curlers are a necessary evil.
12. Money and love are not incompatible.
13. If a man knows what he wants, a woman won't have to tell him.
14, Think twice before asking a question.
15. Keep one closet all to yourself.
16. Never say "No" when you mean, "Wait a minute."
17. A little bit of jealousy goes a long way.
18. Men have muscles; women, patience.
19. Nobody likes an optimist in the morning.
20. Always announce whom you're talking to the moment you lift the phone.
21. Don't count your wife's shoes.
22. Kindness in the morning is repaid at night.
23. Husbands and wives are not brothers and sisters.
24. It's better to get wet than carry a woman's umbrella.
25. Women who have nothing to wear like to throw out men's things.
26. Strength thrives on tenderness.
27. Raise your voice once a month.
28. Never buy a gift out of guilt.
29. A wife is more important than any car.
30. Antiques are not secondhand furniture.
31. The way to a woman's heart is through the door of a good restaurant.
32. Avoid consistency.
33. Women don't expect miracles.
34. Never open each other's mail.
35. Kiss before breakfast.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband

Forty random reflections of a man about matrimony, revealing exactly what he thinks about - mostly women.

Reprinted from McCall's
Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph

February 2009

1. Marriage makes friends out of lovers and lovers out of strangers.
2. I never met a man who didn't respect a good cook.
3. A working wife is a gift from heaven.
4. No bachelor was ever happier than a happily married man.
5. Sleeping late is not harmful.
6. A shopping woman is a happy woman.
7. It takes only one to make a good marriage.
8. Fresh orange juice is the elixir of love.
9. There is no guilt in admiring a beautiful woman.
10. People who travel are easier to live with at home.
11.  Women are night people.
12. Only a fool would tell his wife everything.
13. It is humanly possible to have a good marriage.
14. Women love sales as men love heroics.
15. Don't hold your wife's friends against her.
16. Be first in bed whenever you can.
17. Sarcasm causes baldness.
18. Men should sleep near the telephone.
19. Never keep strict accounts.
20. A woman with taste is always beautiful.
21. Technique isn't everything.
22. Call your wife anything except "Mother."
23. Thank your wife after every meal.
24. Large twin beds are twice as good as any double bed.
25. Beware of the logical woman.
26. Nothing is more tangible to a woman than love.
27. Never talk about your wife.
28. Fat women are more fun.
29. Man will remain uncivilized as long as he has to share a bathroom.
30. Never try to relive your honeymoon.
31. Women regard war as their personal enemy.
32. Learn how to drive a nail into a wall, and a woman will stop at nothing to show her 
33. Women don't understand soft-boiled eggs.
34. A gentleman never refuses a lady.
35. Women are usually right for the wrong reasons.
36. Living for today builds memories for tomorrow.
37. Women who wear men's pajamas make good companions.
38. One woman is enough for a real man.
39. If you lose your wife, don't keep looking for her.
40. Never keep a diary.

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