Boy Meets Girl

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Romance in the Time of Covid

The late afternoon sun pokes through the front-facing windows of 927 Brewery, casting elongated shadows as it bounces off tabletops and shines through the amber hues of partially emptied glasses.

A thirty-something man enjoys a flight of craft beer and gazes at the concert posters and photos that cover the walls of the well-worn taproom. Behind the short bar, a bearded man wipes his eyeglasses with a towel, turns, and glides through a set of curtains. He soon returns, accompanied by the clinking of clean beer mugs. He places them within reach of the taps and nods his graying head in satisfaction. He notices that the man has caught the eye of a fellow patron, a pleasant woman dressed casually in a sundress, sandals, and a cute little short-sleeved sweater. The awkwardness of the eye contact soon fades as both patrons recognize the mutual interest.

So begins another page in the never-ending story – Boy Meets Girl in the Time of Covid.

They remain seated apart for a while, sharing rueful smiles as they dance the sadly familiar “moving of the mask.” On, off, sip, savor, repeat. Their eyes connect between each taste, checking to see if they were doing it correctly. It seems both silly and serious, as flirting sometimes does. After a while, she decides some real conversation might be pleasant. She casually asks, “Would you like to go outside? We can chat and enjoy the fading sunlight and the sweet-salty taste of the ocean air.” He smiles agreeably, grabs his mask and cap, and politely waits as she makes her way to the door.

They continue a cautious conversation on the outside patio.

“This is a cool little place,” she offers. “Is this your first time here?”

He shakes his head slightly. “No, actually, I stopped in here one afternoon, before all the craziness of Covid. It was quite busy. The guy behind the bar was hustling to keep glasses full and conversations going. He wore comfortable shorts and sandals, as I recall. I wonder where he is these days.”  

“Across the street,” a fellow patron answered, pointing to a winetasting room filling the curving intersection on the opposite side of the narrow block. “Still wears the shorts!”

“Good for him!” she declares. “All the bartenders where I live wear camo and cowboy boots: a different world, a different everything. I love the variety of people in Cambria. You can talk to ten strangers, and odds are they will be from ten different places.”

He nods in agreement and asks, “So, where is home for you?”

“A small place called Wilseyville, up near Sandy Gulch. Beautiful country, lots of trees, horses, and cows. I grew up there, and even though I travel a lot, I still call it home. It was a safe place to ride out this terrible pandemic, but frustrating to be stuck where nothing much has changed over the years. Overall, though, it is home.” After a thoughtful pause, she continues her story.

“I heard about Cambria from a neighbor. She mentioned that a local girl had landed a great job and moved down this way with her husband. I only knew the girl to wave to, so we probably wouldn’t recognize each other if we passed at the Farmer’s Market. I do remember her love of camo-themed clothes, which she can wear ‘cause she is such a pretty girl. Anyway, I looked up Cambria on the internet, and it seemed like a great destination for one of my freelance writer road trips. So this visit is a bit of a working vacation.”

 She watches him take a sip, then asks him about his journey to the Pines by the Sea.

He gazes up at the surrounding hills, and answers. “I used to come up here with my parents during summer vacation. We would use Cambria as our home base and take great overnight trips to the campgrounds up through Big Sur. It seemed like a place from another time, and I guess it is. I’ve come back on my own a few times to recharge and connect with the environment. Right now I’m in town on business.”

“Ha, something in common!” She smiles. “Working and enjoying this great little town. What kind of work do you do here?”

He starts to reply, then quickly stops as he sees a Q-tipped colored head peering over the steering wheel of a slowly passing car. The driver’s eyes narrow when she spies the couple. She grabs a notebook and pen and furiously scribbles something with her left hand as her right simultaneously raises a small camera and clicks off a few shots. She takes a hard turn onto Main street and disappears behind the frozen yogurt store.

“Well, that was weird,” whispers the woman.

“Not for Cambria,” he replies.

He perks up a bit and smiles. “To answer your question, I am a (stage whispers) consultant, doing some analysis for the local Services District. I’ve learned saying you’re a consultant here is like saying NIAGARA FALLS to the Three Stooges. SLOWLY I TURN, STEP BY STEP, INCH BY INCH AND I….” He notices her puzzled look and adds, “The Susquehanna Hat Company to Abbott and Costello, maybe?”

She looks at him and says, “Three Stooges? Abbott and Costello? I’m sorry, I don’t follow politics.” She waits for a beat, then whoops out a “NyukNyukNuk,” followed by a loud “Hey ABBOTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!”

Oh my god, she’s perfect for me!”

Oh my god, I’m perfect for him!”

Any reservations about continuing the evening fade away. A different type of energy takes over.

“So, where are you staying?” he asks, mentally calculating the distance to any of the local hotels.

“The Bluebird Inn, on Main Street,” she answers, checking her guest key to be sure. “It’s in a good location and more affordable than the places on Moonstone Beach.”

“Wow, what a happy coincidence! I’ve been staying there for a week now. I’m finally getting used to the sound of the streets rolling up around 9:30.”

“Speaking of things shutting down early, I could go for some food. You’re practically a local; where do you suggest?” She then corrects herself with, “Oh, I’m sorry, I should have asked if you would like to join me for a bite.”

“That sounds fantastic,” he quickly responds. “Let’s start walking. We’ll decide along the way.” She reaches out and lightly places her hand on his arm, and says, “Sounds like a plan!”

The man behind the bar is fussing with a playlist, skipping through songs until he stops on a rollicking, aggro-country Americana folk tune. Neither one of them could identify the music, so the barman explained. “It’s called “Buddies and Barbs” by a local singer-songwriter team. It tells the tale of the ongoing dialog that passes between Cambria’s tribes. It is sung and played in two different keys at the same time.

“Sounds kind of painful,” she says in a puzzled voice.

“You have no idea,” the barman replies, glancing at a faded green flyer that bore his image, and the washed-out words “vote for …” then a smudged something.

Armed with this bit of local lore, they say goodbye and head out to continue their adventure. He suddenly stops, asks her to wait by the door for a quick minute, and dashes across the street. He returns carrying a bottle of Pinot Noir. He gallantly proffers the wine. “To a great evening, and yes, he still wears shorts.”

They walk towards the East Village. The two now-cozy visitors decide to get something from Indigo Moon to enjoy back at the Inn. While they wait for their order they savor a relaxing evening cocktail. By the time they reach the Bluebird, they are familiar as old friends.

With food and wine in hand, they silently question, “Your place or mine?” She points to her room, unlocks the door, and waves him in with an exaggerated bow. He places the food and wine on the dresser. She brushes against him and reaches into the bag, forgetful of what they had ordered but not caring.

The assorted cheese plate calls out for an accomplice. Two tumblers of Pinot oblige. They each take a slow sip of the wine and begin to nibble on the cheese. A candle burns, a curtain closes, and a duvet finds itself tossed carelessly to the floor. Soon, the cheese is finished, but not the nibbling. Each looks to the other for a signal. The room heats up. Clothes start to fall away.

“Wait,” she says suddenly. “I am totally into what we are doing and definitely want to continue. But I have to be certain that we take all the right precautions. Do you have…”

He smiles confidently and reaches for his wallet, enjoying the building excitement. He opens it slowly, reaches in, and gently extracts the very thing needed at this moment. He notes the slight outline it has left on the soft leather. He places it on the nightstand, gently smooths the creases, and shows just how prepared he is with a slightly trembling hand.

She takes it from him, studies it for a moment, and quietly sighs, “Moderna. Two doses. Oh, yes!”

Things begin to accelerate when another thought creeps in. Not wanting to break the mood again, she slips her hand into her nightstand and says seductively, “I brought something special with me, just in case a night like this might happen. I… I’ve never used one of these before with another person, so I’m a bit nervous. Maybe you could help me with it?”

Now delirious with fantasy, he agrees faster than Meatloaf by the dashboard light. She brings her hand up and slowly reveals what she has in mind. She looks him deeply in the eyes, places it in his eager hand, and says, “This is for you. Swab me. Swab me good.”

“Are you sure about this?” he asks.

“What an odd question,” she answers. “This is a time when you absolutely do not want me to be positive. Now enjoy the best fifteen-minute wait you will ever have.”

“Hey Abbott indeed,” he thinks as he unwraps the rapid test kit.

In the blur of passion, neither notices the growing tendrils of smoke beginning to fill the room. The insistent beeping of a close-by alarm breaks through the fog, causing them to jump up in confusion. Confusion quickly turns to alarm. Small fingers of flame dance atop the dresser, consuming the carelessly discarded swab packaging.

She grabs a half-empty tumbler of Pinot and pours it over the spreading flame and watches, fascinated, as the remnants of the assorted cheese platter melt into a weird little fondue.

He grabs a towel from the bathroom and wets it in the sink; a painful, slow process. Water dribbles through the regulator installed on the faucet. With little time to waste, he gives up and drops the slightly damp cloth atop the smoldering mess, creating a Picasso-like bas relief of a picnic gone horribly wrong.

Under heavy pounding the door yields, and the room fills with first responders, led by a small but forceful Fire Captain. Her ice-blue eyes take in the scene, and she quickly gives an order to her crew. “FOAM IT ALL DOWN!” They do so with great enthusiasm.

Mission accomplished, the Captain offers a smart salute to the cooled-down couple and orders her team out. As they leave, a newly-minted reserve firefighter, shaken by her first encounter with live danger, receives some brotherly advice from a red-headed engineer who ends his pep talk with “…and this is why we always keep a supply of rice cakes handy.”

Wrapped in  rumpled sheets and wearing flimsy paper slippers, the couple watch the firefighters depart. They are grateful, albeit a bit embarrassed by the whole messy event. As the truck rumbles past, the captain gives him a slight smile and a wink. He remembers that he is scheduled to meet with the Fire Chief and his team the next day.

“Well, this is a story that won’t be featured in my next travelogue,” she says with a chuckle.

“Amen to that” he mutters. “I guess we should get some rest. My room is undamaged. We can sleep there.”

She nods and adds, “Plus, we are already swabbed, so…”

They join hands and disappear into the Bluebird, as a car slowly rolls by. A nearby streetlamp briefly illuminates a Q-tip colored head. With the seething sound of an outraged “consultant indeed!!!” and the click of one final picture, all becomes silent in Beautiful Cambria.

A Reunion of Saints

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Three hundred Saints, and One Guy With a Grudge

According to historical records recently uncovered during a secular Google search, there are three hundred and thirty-one Catholic Saints. A number of them are relatively famous both inside and outside the Church. Many more fall into the “vaguely aware of” category, with the rest serving as good answers in a spirited game of Holy Jeopardy. For comparison, other institutions that elevate the best of the best include Major League Baseball, whose Hall of Fame has three hundred and thirty-three memorialized, and Rock and Roll, with three hundred and fifty-one honorees enshrined in Cleveland. Statistically speaking, The Church has the lowest inductee-per-year number of the three organizations, illustrating the high bar for canonization. Given the gift of perpetual life, many of the Saints choose to live a quiet, anonymous existence here, among us mortals.

What is not well known to the souls that roam 6,000-year-old planet earth, or the billions who populate regular Earth, is that before 1969 there were many more official Saints. In a frenzy of calendar clearing, Pope Paul VI and his team deemed over 90 of them no longer worthy of the title. While still considered exceptional, they lost that extra “something” that elevates the pretty good to a top-shelf icon.

Even though these former All-Stars are still included in the fables and lore that blanket the faith, their halos shine a bit less.

Perhaps the most famous and saddest example of this descent is Christopher, of the wildly popular medal and statuette dynasty. How is he coping with his change of fortune?

Catholic Saints Reunion

Saturday, November the First

Garden of Eden Room

At The Ethereal

Pearly Gates Resort and Spa

All Millenia, All Welcome!

Inside an elegant banquet hall, over three hundred saints and near-saints gather to reconnect with old friends and fellow legends to reminisce about their journeys through the centuries. Men, women, and an occasional child float from table to table. Momentary looks of confusion turn to smiles when familiar faces become recognized. Every known language fills the space, yet no one struggles to understand or be understood. 

Over in a corner, away from the center of the hall, sits a solitary figure. He nurses a mead and casts baleful glances at the revelers. With his left hand, he absently flips a small silvery object – a medal that bears his likeness surrounded by the simple words “Protect Us.” As the party rolls on, the lonely man’s grip tightens, and he begins to spin the talisman atop the table as if it were a baptized dreidel.  

A woman’s voice interrupts his silent stew. Traces of a German accent reveal her as an old friend from a different time when he was one of the most celebrated icons.

“CHRISTOPHER??? CHRISTOPHER!!! It IS you!!!!!!! Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe you came! “

“Hello, Ursula,” Christopher replies softly, “I guess I could say the same about you.” 

Ursula doesn’t miss a beat. She rushes past the subtle jab within Christopher’s response and follows up her greeting with, “So, how have you been, I mean, since the terrible day in 1969 when we were….” 

“Demoted? Disgraced? Disrespected? Knocked down a cloud or two?” Christopher snaps, his voice tightens, and his focus turns from his visitor back to the happy group filling the hall. 

Ursula senses his pain. “Oh, dear Christopher, I feel your heartache clear across this table. I can only imagine how hard it has been for you these past decades. Yes, I suffered the same dismaying demotion, but I was not at your level of celebrity amongst the faithful. I may have been a big deal back in Cologne, and yes, there is still a High School in the Bronx that carries my name. But you, dear Christopher, had it all. The medal. The figurines on every Catholic family’s dashboard. Ford, Chevy, even the Ramblers. You were the real deal. And the paintings! You in your handsome robes, with your staff, carrying the weight of all the world on your shoulder. I am getting chills just picturing it!”

“Well yeah, I have to say that was an awesome picture,” he grudgingly agrees. “I was in great shape back then, before all…this.” He picks up his commemorative reunion mug and takes a long drink before continuing. “So here we are, you and me. Have you seen anyone else from our unfortunate class of ’69? How about George the Dragon Killer? I bet he took it like a true stoic. You’d think slaying a dragon would be enough to keep you in the top tier, but nope. Have you heard from him lately?” 

“No, not directly,” Ursula answered. “I read he was doing something with Brexit; I might be wrong about that. But you know who came out just fine from that whole “dropped from the Ecumenical Calendar” episode? Nicholas, that’s who. What does he care? He has the whole month of December, what with that Santa Claus enterprise. Not exactly in keeping with the birth of the savior thing. But hey, it moves the merch and fills the kettles, so whatever. Do you think he’ll show up tonight?” she asked absently. 

“I doubt it,” sneers Thomas, who has silently sidled up to the table during the exchange. “I don’t believe he’s all that and a bag of candy canes. If I see him, I will poke him in the belly and say, “Show me some proof, you big bowl of jelly!” 

“Thomas,” Christopher sighs, “I see not much has changed. You are proof of the adage of stick with what got you here.” 

“Why change?” Thomas sniffs. “I’m doing just fine. After all, I am one of the original twelve.”

It was clear why some lesser saints call him Thomas the Weisenheimer behind his back. 

Christopher starts to take the bait but quickly adjusts his upraised finger into the sign of the Trinity. “I might not be a superstar anymore,” the former medalist thinks, “but I still have my dignity.” 

Sensing the growing tension, Ursula chirps, “Hey guys, why don’t we take a stroll over by the bar? It looks like Saint Mark is powering up his blender, and the band sounds like they are tuning up for their first set. At least, I HOPE they’re tuning up, or this night could feel like an eternity.”

“Oh joy. I hope it’s a decent band,” Thomas the Snide opines. “Last time they had that Gabriel fellow and his ratty-ass trumpet. I was praying for the walls to come down, anything to get him to stop.”

The band kicks off the evening’s musical celebration with a gospel-tinged rendition of “Hey Jude,” drawing appreciative smiles and a bashful wave from a luminary seated at table six.

“Hey, these guys are not bad. What’s their name?” Christopher asks. 

 “I can’t believe you don’t recognize them,” Thomas gushes excitedly. “It’s my old running buddies Peter and The Paracletes. Their music is light, but man, the lyrics – deep!” You might remember the original group, Apostle’s Creed. I played bass with them for a while before heading off to India for a more evolved musical experience.” 

“Always with the boasting, that Thomas.” Ursula thought.

As the evening wears on, Thomas, buzzed from the mystery potion served up by Mark, is getting a bit loud. “Look at Francis, still with that haircut. Big shot – I knew him when all he had were two small lambs and a gimpy hen.” Loudly – “HEY ASSISI – how’s that chicken doing?”

To his eternal credit, Francis does not strike back at Thomas’s taunts but instead flips him one of the souvenir birds he keeps under his robe.

Christopher, clearly irritated, whispers, “Thomas, you’re being a putz. What do you have against Francis?”

Thomas spins around, furiously rubbing his palms with his fingers. “What do I have against Francis? WHAT DO I HAVE AGAINST FRANCIS, you ask? How about his alleged “stigmata” thing. I mean, come on; I didn’t buy it the first time around, and I sure as heck am not buying it now!!!”

Christopher and Ursula share the same silent thought, “This guy needs therapy, or at least 40 days on a mountain top somewhere to examine his choices. How is he still a Saint?”

The timely announcement of the 50-50 raffle breaks some of the tension and gives Christopher and Ursula the chance to slip away from Thomas, who is pestering the band to let him sit in on a tune. They make their way to a quiet alcove near an open set of French doors, grateful for the evening breeze and the drop in volume from the festivities within.

“So,” Christopher asks, “was that Theresa running the raffle? She was always good at things like that. I only got to know her a little bit before…” his voice trails off.

“Indeed, she is something!” Ursula responds, adding an extra touch of enthusiasm to her words, hoping to keep Christopher from falling back into a dark place. “So much energy, so much spirit. I really admire her.”

“Like you used to admire me, Ursula? With the robe, the staff, the statuettes?” Christopher’s words, surprisingly, carry no anger or bitterness. Just resignation.

Ursula, wisely, does not respond, fearing she might sound condescending or flip. Or worse, patronizing. There are enough Patronizing Saints already. Instead, she stretches her shoulders and says, “I’m a bit parched. How about we grab something to slake our thirst?”

“Ha! Slake! I haven’t heard that word used in decades. Sure, let’s go slake.” Christopher lightly takes her hand and guides them towards the small service bar next to a pair of marble columns. He is not unaware of Ursula’s efforts to keep him upbeat and is grateful for her sensitivity and kindness.

What can I get you two?” the barman asked the couple.

Ursula pauses and then says, “I think I’ll have some water. Christopher?”

“Sure, sounds good. Two Lourdes, good sir. No ice for me.” He retrieves the stylish glass bottles with the light blue and white lettering framing a beautifully etched rendition of a small grotto and a trickling stream.

The two old friends relax and enjoy their waters, feeling a strange wash of peace and health with each sip. No words needed, just the company of a kindred spirit. These two faded icons, scarred by the same sad turn of events, find their spirits lifting in harmony.

After a while, drinks finished, Ursula says, “That water was exceptional. Now I need to visit the ladies’ room.” Christopher concurs, knowing he too needs a pit stop.

“Meet you back here in a few,” Ursula lightly sings. With a small wave, she turns right just past the marble columns and disappears. Christopher follows, turning left toward the gents.

As he stands relieving himself, he begins to think about the evening. Seeing Ursula after all these years kindled a bit of a spark, a fundamental spiritual and physical connection. He smiles, allowing himself to think ahead, seeing all sorts of possible endings to the evening. Christopher, who has been sad for so long, senses the beginnings of hope. He finishes his business and strides towards the row of sinks, eager to wash his hands and meet back up with Ursula.

Everything stops. Christopher grabs the towel dispenser to steady himself. His eyes lock on the face of the man who just walked into the room. The joy of the evening has opened small cracks in his armor, leaving him vulnerable to the cruel crush of despair.

No! Not him. Not here, not now. The cause of his misery, his humiliation, his downfall. Him.

Staring back, with a dawning recognition of the individual clutching the towel dispenser, stands Saint Pope Paul VI. The Great Decider. The Holy Presider over the worst day of Christopher’s life.

They face each other, separated by a few terrazzo tiles. One, now a Saint. The other one, no longer.

Saint Pope Paul VI speaks first – softly, matter-of-factly. “I had to do it. It was nothing personal, just a decision made on the facts.” His soft Italian accent makes his words sound both threatening and romantic at the same time. “Your case, well, it was one of the hardest to decide. The statues, the medals, and that robe painting all weighed heavily in your favor. Sadly, though, we – I –could not find enough hard evidence to back your tale of forging a raging river carrying The Child. It had to be done.”

He bows his head, makes the sign of the cross, chants something in Latin, and breathes deeply, ready to deflect the angry words he is sure will come.

But Christopher has no answer. He is struck silent by a feeling of freedom, a spiritual transfiguration of sorts. A miracle? Perhaps it was the Lourdes, perhaps not.

All the hurt, the rage, and shame evaporate. The darkness has gone, replaced with a lightness he’s not felt since before his rise and fall.

Christopher slowly smiles, then begins to laugh softly. His laughter grows louder, his smile wider. Thomas and Francis come through the door, somehow friends, after a rough start to the evening. They take in the scene before them, notice the smile, and hear the laughter. Thomas, true to form, waves dismissively and says to Francis, “Let’s find another bathroom. Who needs all this drama!”

Christopher walks past his former nemesis and offers a lilting “Bless your heart” as he lightly touches Saint Pope Paul VI’s sleeve.

A small crowd gathers in the vestibule, drawn by what will forever be known as the Draining By The Sink. Christopher barely notices them. He only has eyes for one face in the crowd.

Ursula comes to his side, leans in, and softly asks, “You good?”

“I am,” Christopher answers, filled with more happiness than he’s ever felt before. “I am.”

“Good,” Ursula sighs. “How about we head out and see where the night might take us. After a slight pause, she impishly asks, “Do you still have that robe?”

“Hmmm,” Christopher murmurs slyly. “What do you have in mind?”

“Oh, I have an idea or two. After all, it’s not like we’re Saints.”

Falling

In her dream, she was falling.

Crazy tumbling images spun by. Her logical scientific mind frantically grabbed but failed to hold onto the connective tissue that floated just out of consciousness. Her intuitive, primal spirit found a thread and pulled, gently braking the whirling carousel. The random images, sounds, and emotions connected; not in any logical order or sequence, but started to make sense.

In this dreamy vignette, young girls filled the small gym at Saint Nicholas of Tolentine grammar school. A whirl of motion, navy jumpers over absurd blue bloomers, six to a side, as the rules of the day dictated. Basketball, boys or girls, ruled the neighborhood. From grade one through high school, the thud thud thud of ball against the ground was as much a part of the atmosphere as car horns, cooing pigeons, and soft Irish accents of mothers and grandfathers.

The tone of the rhythmic thump changed from leather on wood to the metallic ping of ball meeting concrete. Gone was the swish of the net, replaced by the clang and rattle of the garbage can used for target practice outside the oval that centered Devoe Park. The oval was the neighborhood coliseum for serious players, usually male. Plenty of local girls could compete against the best boys, and handily beat the average ones. But in her dream, she was not one of those girls.

She was still falling. Her vision melted into a kaleidoscope of maroon and white. Words and letters appeared above and beside her, then turned upside down as she descended. Familiar words. She carried them for four years and earned an F, the prized varsity letter that represented Fordham. Fordham University, the place where she found her niche among the best cheerleaders. The place where she achieved academic excellence. The place where once again the arrogance of men tried to keep her from playing on their court. Forgive me, Father, but I will not be known as Young Miss, but as Doctor.

The picture changed again. A boisterous crowd filled row after ascending row in the most famous of all arenas: Madison Square Garden, home of countless basketball confrontations, rock concerts, and the occasional mass wedding. A young college man, playing his heart out for his school, grew older with each dribble, his face and figure becoming the comforting man she woke up to that very morning. Alongside him ran two boys, who, like the man they resembled, grew into young teens, then mature young men. They were as clear and familiar as her own heart, the heart that pounded as she presented them to the world.

There was no rat-infested apartment building in this dream, no terrifying first lab class with dissected rodents under her shaking hand, no arrogant Jesuit blocking her access to a life in medicine.

There were only twenty-five thousand cheering fans, falling with her, helping feather the landing, and sharing the fear and joy of a tumultuous ride.

She slowly woke, the places of the past replaced by the contours of her office. Her eyes briefly rested on the wall of framed accomplishments. The sounds of distant cheering remained faintly in her ears, as grateful neighbors saluted the arriving colleagues that fight to keep other people’s dreams alive.

Her hand rose to her white coat, feeling for the Blue and Gold SNT, or the Maroon and White Letters she gained at Fordham. Instead, her fingers found the symbol of her calling. She gave a reverent squeeze to the simple tag that bore her name and the most honorable letters, M.D.

Fast Hands, Quiet Feet

The intersection of citizen advocacy and elected community leadership is more fluid than a hard, clean line. There are rules and processes designed to facilitate that dynamic, but it isn’t easy to maintain consistent compliance in practice.

Whether elected or volunteer, public service comes with the responsibility to sometimes loosen one’s grip on an absolute position and accept a reasonable compromise. It also requires occasional conformity to uncomfortable or alien practices to how one operates as an individual, a family, or a boss.

Many of the people who step forward to serve the Cambria community are eager to “crush the ball” and drive positive change. Some are natural leaders, with the right combination of skills and experience needed for a particular role. Others are situational leaders, either by subject matter expertise, intense personal connection to an issue, or passion for a cause. Many, if not most, are good collaborators who find a place to contribute to the overall success of the team, and therefore the community. There are a few who struggle to recognize when they are holding on too tightly to a single style, not putting the greater good above personal philosophy.

Little League Baseball

When my son was much younger, I helped support his Little League team. I was not an official coach, just a father who knew a fair amount about the game of baseball, had a flexible schedule, and enjoyed watching the kids learn all the essential things that come along with organized sports. The official coach, Steve Galluccio, kept a group of rambunctious young boys on a good path while allowing enough freedom to keep it fun. He also had the remarkable ability to handle the difficult kids who would sulk or act out when they weren’t chosen to start or play the position they wanted.

My skill was in observing the players as hitters.

You can observe a lot by just watching. Yogi Berra

Two of the kids had great raw tools but made repetitive mistakes that limited their success. One boy was an obvious athlete – tall for his age, great disposition, and a joy for playing that made it look easy. His approach reminded me of the great Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy. The Little League version held his arms high, with shoulders level with his chin. His eagerness to hit the ball as hard as possible led him to violate the prime rule of hitting – keep your eye on the ball. When he started his swing, he would raise his front shoulder, which blocked his view of the incoming pitch. On those occasions where he connected, the baseball rocketed over the head of the outfielder. More often, though, he would miss the pitch badly. We worked on this problem throughout the season, and his success rate improved with each game.

‘The second player had a different batting style, though his desire to crush the ball also led to some bad habits. To generate more power, he would pull his arms way back as the pitcher released the ball, knocking him off balance and elongating the time it took to get the bat into the hitting zone. We worked on his starting point, moving his arms away from his body and keeping his hands farther back, in a ready position. We also worked on getting his feet spaced and balanced. The time he gained gave him split seconds to adjust to the location of the pitch. The phrase we used as a reminder was “fast hands, quiet feet.”

Put Me In, Coach

Like people everywhere, we sometimes refuse to listen and adjust our stance, relying on self-confidence that might be a bit misplaced. Not everyone can be right all the time. We all need coaching, and we all need to constantly evaluate our approach and make adjustments to meet the day’s challenge.

One of the many reasons I see baseball as an analogy for life is the century-plus history of those who enjoyed long and successful careers by making adjustments. Many pitchers, gifted with a blistering fastball that made them unhittable, found themselves getting touched up as they lost a bit of zip. Twenty-year major league pitcher Frank Tanana adapted by adding new pitches, changing speeds, studying hitters more closely, and knowing when to turn the ball over to a teammate. Derek Jeter could hit home runs but took a situational approach to hitting, amassing statistics that underscore his intelligence, team focus, and the judgment to adjust to the game situation. Will he apply the same philosophy to his new career as an MLB team owner? We will see!

Self-realization is powerful. So is listening to coaches who see things from a different perspective. As my good friend and mentor Rick Jablonski says, “give me the athlete, and I’ll teach him the game.” Great advice, especially with those who have the willingness for continuous learning and growth.

Like baseball, there is always a crowd watching every move, every choice, and every decision in public service. The beauty of it all is there are way more fans rooting for success than detractors hoping for failure. So, grab a glove or a gavel, suit up and enjoy the game.

The Fourth of July

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I had been thinking about what I might write on this Fourth of July – the most unsettled and concerning one I can recall. America. It is beautiful, and it is ugly. It is heartbreaking and uplifting. It is loud, it is soft, but what it can never be is silent.

My approach changed as I Zoom’d into the UUCC service, hosted by my wife Jan and populated with personal recollections and perspectives from several fellow congregants. I listened as different speakers shared their American experiences through profoundly personal memories.

I am going to take a bit of personal privilege and share some of Jan’s words. I will also take this opportunity to share the unseen hours of writing, researching, and practicing as she put together her contribution to the music of the service. She thoughtfully combined Lou Stein’s complex and compelling jazz arrangement of “America” with Paul Simon’s poignant musical story of the same name. Two very different styles and visions, brought together to underscore the theme of the gathering perfectly.

In her talk, Jan shared a bit about her family history in America.

“When I was growing up, someone in my family started the rumor that we were directly related to Thomas Paine. I have since learned Tom Paine had no children that survived past infancy, so if we were related, it had to be remotely. I do, however, really have a Grandpaw Paine.

I want to believe my roots hail back to the great man, Tom Paine, the writer of Common Sense, the rabble-rouser who inspired people to embrace the Rights of Man. I want to believe that my heritage is that of a people who demanded a more perfect union. I derive that heritage, or at least the imagining of it, from my mother’s side.

My father’s was a completely different story. He came to the United States at six months old from Sicily, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, joined the army in the prequel to WWII, fought at Normandy, Ardennes, and the Rhineland.

That’s why I consider myself the quintessential American citizen. First-generation on one side and probably seventh or eighth or more on the other. What could be more American?”

Indeed.

It was her poem, read towards the end of the service, that expressed her American heart.

The Last Rocket’s Red Glare                by Jan Callner  July 4, 2021

There was something

rare – possibly unattainable,

perhaps unsustainable.

Hamilton, Franklin, Adams,

Jefferson, Washington, Paine.

They knew it.

At Fort Sumpter we knew it.

At Gettysburg we knew it.

At Meuse-Argonne and

at Normandy we knew it.

Our vision blurred

with Viet Nam,

the Gulf War,

on 9/11,

and with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan.

Where are they now,

the Jeffersons, the Adamses,

and, yes, the Lincolns?

Cooler, calmer minds

exist… listen now for

their voices.

For these are the times that try men’s souls.

Trying times,

Don’t be fooled

by the survival, not of the fittest,

but of the brashest.

Of those who follow the bray,

absorb the molecular barrage of insidiousness.

And what of the people who 

arrive from everywhere,

to seek refuge,

a better life?

What will they find

in this land of the free?

The rocket’s last glare?

Lincoln called us America,

The last best hope of earth.

Those ignorant of our struggles and successes,

see what they want to see.

Only hear the loudest voice

as it blares

from myriad digital sources.

Quiet the noise.

Listen to the universe.

It speaks

in a soundless voice

to be divined

if we are to hear the silence

of bombs

not

bursting

in

air.

Role Models

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There are moments when the vision of the perfect American small town is realized here in beautiful Cambria. Amidst the fractiousness of diverse world views, small moments of grace slip through the noise, just enough to bring a bit of positivity to balance things out. For every rally cry or protest, there are quieter moments where true inspiration occurs almost unnoticed. Within these moments, we get to experience joy, hope, admiration, and pride in the grace and positivity of this remarkable place.

 He drives the community bus.

You see him at the Cookie Crock, cheerfully helping his charges pick items from the shelf. Then, he positions the shopping cart and carefully transfers the day’s groceries and passengers safely into the bus. He does all this with respectful ease, bringing calm to what might be an anxious outing for our senior neighbors.

He smiles a lot, and banters a bit, and seems to know what is needed – support, independence, gentle assistance, some of all the above.

When not behind the wheel, he participates in the larger community discourse. He expresses his opinions and presses for answers on matters that concern him. He holds solid views but doesn’t lock out other voices who see things differently. While others shout, insult, threaten or accuse, he raises his hand or writes a letter. He exercises his rights as a thoughtful adult.

They will create a better future.

Seven young women from Coast Union’s class of 2021 accepted scholarships from the Cambria UU community. Intelligent, articulate, focused. Humble, grateful, and well aware of the opportunities they have earned.  

They spoke of their role models – parents and families who sacrificed so much to give their children more than they took for themselves. As each student shared their plans for the future, they gave me, and many others, a teary-eyed hope for the future. 

They will take advantage of the generosity they received and return those gifts to their community through the skills and experiences they will have gained. These seven young women, and the rest of the remarkable graduating class of 2021, are role models. 

You

Behind these graduates flow lines of teachers, parents, employers, and community contributors standing as examples of living one’s values. You take your principles into the streets, the shops and restaurants, the farms and ranches, and the places of worship. You turn abstract concepts into tangible skills, demonstrating how to defeat the roadblocks and obstacles that sometimes slow us down. 

You are the local business owners standing in the street with the kids, fighting for a place to skate and congregate.

You are the educators who design curriculums that teach rudimentary skills, the value of teamwork, and the value of commitment.

You are the first responders who arrive when our stress is high, and fears are real. You bring physical bravery and skill, but your kindness and compassion save us more often.

You are the keeper of the environment, the holder of the positive attitude. A builder, not a destroyer.

You demonstrate what good looks like, what truth sounds like, and how decency feels.  

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Shine on, beautiful Cambria.

Far-Fetched Follies

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Well, maybe next year.

While browsing the local social media sites, I saw an audition notice for the upcoming production of the Cambria Follies. This annual extravaganza, produced as part of the Pinedorado festival sponsored by the Lions Club, features enthusiastic locals who leap at the chance to stretch out and share their inner diva.

The shows feature a tangle of plotlines that loosely follow local goings-on and are rife with inside jokes, awful puns, and ersatz re-imaginings of popular tunes.

The audition notice described the upcoming production as a retelling of the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” with a Cambria twist. Hence, the name – “The Wizard of CambriOZ.”

I wondered quietly to myself , “what other movie might lend itself to a Cambria twist?”  A few came to mind.

Les Miserables

In the Cambria version, there are sixteen Javerts to one Valjean. And everyone sings like Russell Crowe – a happy coincidence! Musical numbers include a nod to our local eateries with Valjean soaring through the prayerful “Bring Him Scones.” Local politics get a rousing sendup in “Do You Hear The People Scream,” with ratepayers waving giant replicas of their water bills. The passionate “I Dreamed A Dream” is delivered by a powerful woman standing fiercely center stage as the ensemble slowly circles her on skateboards. A mirthful couple adds comic relief with a sassy take on “Master of The House,” except it will be tough to follow and sure to annoy a good part of the audience. Still working on how to fit in “Hearst Castle On A Cloud.”

The Princess Bride

The classic William Goldman tale is a fantastic candidate for the Follies treatment. The characters are Cambria-perfect, with everything from a good-hearted brute to a semi-retired wizard, a scheming consort, and a gaggle of townsfolk eager for something – anything – to perk up their static lives. Sadly, they can only get glimpses of what goes on twice a month. Add in a single-minded revenge-seeker, and prepare for hilarious hijinks.

The title character is a vision of loveliness, captured by an evil and cowardly king who is plotting to marry, then murder her in a scheme to gain power and dominion over neighboring tracts. For some reason, the princess’s name changes at random times during the story. Hello, metaphor!

Westley, our hero, traveled across endless miles of brine in pursuit of his true love, arriving amidst the lush green hills in time to see his beloved readying to marry (unwillingly) the creepy king. (Song – It’s Always Fire Season When You Are Near.)

Newly-created musical numbers include The Princess singing “Say My Name…No, The New One.” The scheming king soft-shoes through his show-stopping “I Got Connections.” Hero Westley joins the revenge-seeking Inigo and the lovable giant in a close-harmony lament, “My Heart is a Sensitive Habitat,” flowing into the 11 o’clock number “This I Will Never Permit.” The townsfolk get their chance to voice displeasure in the boisterous “Is It Thursday Yet???”

Inigo Montoya:
Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.

Westley:
Have you ever considered piracy? You’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts. If that doesn’t work, you can retire to Cambria and continue your skewering.

Mean Girls – Senior Class

What could be more appropriate than the Tina Fey-penned romp “Mean Girls?”

In the original story, a young girl, newly arrived in town, is dropped into high-school hell. She learns to co-exist with a whole new ecosystem, ruled by a cadre of girls who display all the disfunction of insecurity, entitlement, and down-right meanness.

In the retelling, we see these characters many years later. They may have aged, but have they grown up? The characteristics that made them mean girls show up in their interactions and attitudes as they saw through norms and niceties to score points against a group of folks just trying to do the best they can.

The oddball characters from the original have also stayed true to who they are, using their uniqueness to bring positive energy to the community. In the final telling, the outsider, having attempted to fit in with the meanies, learns that her true self is good, kind, and trusted by the community.

Musical numbers include the fiery anthem “Outraged and Loving It!,” the tender ballad “What Did I Get Myself Into,” and the disco-themed “I Will Advise.” The audience receives souvenir giant red mute buttons to mash during the dance break, which will last exactly three minutes.  

The mean girls don’t give up, leaving a path open to the next sequel – “Mean Girls – Meaner Than Hell.”

Epilogue

I will sit by the phone, waiting for the call from a hot-shot producer or a top tier agent. Just not my former agent Ray, who, when asked what he thought of one of my musicals, replied (in a voice familiar to many theater hopefuls) I HATED IT!!!

Watch The Rack

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Boys and Girls

As a teenager who grew up inside the thrumming pulse of the 1970’s Bronx, I was vaguely aware that local businesses along West Fordham Road offered employment for first-timers, old-timers, and everyone in between. There were shelves to stock, registers to ring, dishes to wash, tables to buss, and bars to tend. Delivery boys navigated streets and stairwells, plastic-wrapped dry-cleaning slung over shoulders as wire hangers dug into fingers and palms. Hustling young men lugged cardboard boxes filled with alcohol and cigarettes to customers who too often lived in an upper floor apartment.

A pageant of high school girls worked behind glass bakery display cases, exchanging numbered slips for white paper bags filled with assorted pastries or kaiser rolls. Square cardboard boxes, expertly tied with red and white twine, sheltered a chocolate layer cake or a pound of cookies. Large vibrating slicers noisily turned fresh-baked rye bread into perfect portions, the short, crusty end pieces given to teething toddlers while older folks enjoyed a more civilized chew. It was hard work, especially on Sundays when Mass let out and parishioners lined up out the door. But boy did it smell great, and even the most downbeat patron couldn’t help but smile at the counter girl as she handed over the treats.

Watch The Rack!

On the corner of Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue stood Loehmann’s, the legendary women’s fashion discounter that drew sharp-eyed shoppers from near and far. It provided me with my first real job and a meaningful introduction to people from different ethnicities and social backgrounds. It was a place where my romantic heart and raging hormones tried to figure out how to get along with each other.

Loehmann’s sold women’s high-quality clothing at reasonable prices. In keeping with the discount business model, the company removed the labels from many garments, but astute buyers identified noted brands by look, texture, and fit.

The sprawling multi-level store filled thousands of square feet with chromed racks of blouses, dresses, slacks, and suits. Cashier stations lined both ends of the upper level. An additional row of registers on the lower floor ran perpendicular to the massive plate glass windows facing Fordham Road.

Tucked into the rear of the second floor, the high-end “Back Room” awaited the sophisticated and perhaps better-off bargain hunter.  

Off to the side, away from the main sales floor, long-faced spouses found a bit of solitude in one of the “husband chairs.”

Staff

The workforce featured scores of part-time employees from across the borough. A good number of them were high school and college students. A team of older women acted as supervisors, assisting shoppers in selecting the right ensemble for an upcoming event, trip, or job interview. The proper and stern Mrs. Schultz ruled over the lower level.

I joined a group of mostly high school boys who worked in the stock room. We endlessly cycled clothing from the fitting rooms to plastic hangars, placing them onto rolling racks that we wheeled out to the showroom floors, accompanied by the call of “watch the rack!”

The best stock boys had the hand/eye coordination of a surgeon, the nimbleness of a shortstop, and the soft skills of a well-seasoned diplomat.

The last thing anyone wanted was a collision between a garment rack and a customer. Still, the caution to “watch the rack!” acted as an alert to shoppers that “more stuff was coming out,” teasing the potential appearance of an elusive Pierre Cardin sweater or a St. Laurent skirt.

Often, I turned back to my cart, dismayed to see the carefully hung and sized clothing ravaged by bargain seekers. When the garment’s actual size didn’t match the shopper’s aspirational vision, it landed, rejected, atop the closest display.

With final selections made – and all sales were final – customers trundled over to one of the register stations and dropped their prizes on the long counter. A cashier grasped the blue tag affixed to each garment, read the price, slid it into the register, rang up the transaction, then inserted the ticket halfway into a metal guillotine and gave the padded handle a quick strike. With a solid “thunk,” the bottom half fell into the metal box while the top remained affixed to the clothing. Experienced cashiers developed a smooth rhythm born of a thousand repetitions. The outstanding ones kept a pleasant dialog going with the customer, with an approving smile that conveyed the sense that a bargain, indeed, had been found.

Faces and Voices

I was familiar with many of my co-workers, while others were new to me. They traveled to work from far-away neighborhoods with names like Soundview, Norwood, Pelham Parkway, and Gun Hill Road. The Catholic Academies – Saint Catherine’s, Mother Butler, Mount Saint Ursula, and Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus – were well represented.

Many of their surnames ended, rather than started, with vowels. First names were also different, not conforming to the Irish Catholic practice of honoring a Saint. Miriam, Sarah, and Ruth came from a whole other part of the Bible. Puccini gave us a girl named Tosca.

Crucifixes, horn-shaped pendants, and finely crafted stars swayed on delicate gold and silver chains. The iconic Bronx accent carried traces of exotic flavors from far away places. It was all quite intoxicating and distracting to a teenage boy.

One particular girl, an Italian twin from an unfamiliar neighborhood, totally captivated me. Over time the girl, the street, and the world of the Italian family became very familiar. Goodbye Ragu, hello Sunday gravy.

Rhythms

Cultural historians agree that Hip-Hop sprang from the streets of The Bronx. I heard a very different rhythm within the walls of mid-1970’s Loehmann’s.

The soundtrack sat atop the click of metal hangers hitting chromed display bars. The pulsing hi-hat sweetness of swooshing fabrics sliding against each other, punctuated by the pop of round numbered plastic rings sitting between the twos and the fours. Loaded trolleys rumbled on rubber wheels, cueing the relentless call and response of “Watch The Rack – What’s On That Rack?” while a disembodied voice paged for a hangar pickup at register five. Status stood, invitingly, at the velvet-roped entrance to The Back Room.

I shared the energy of every boy and girl who came to their part-time jobs, looking to bring home a paycheck that rarely broke a hundred dollars.

A Different Lens

When I looked outward, I saw a seascape of shoppers who represented a world I hadn’t experienced in my short life. Women of all ages and backgrounds roamed the store, each looking for the common threads of value and quality. Mothers and daughters from Riverdale wrangled dresses and skirts alongside sisters and aunts from Arthur Avenue. The racks didn’t favor one over another, and everyone was equal in the harsh light of the communal dressing rooms.

Every month or so, Orthodox Jewish women traveled on busses from Brooklyn to The Bronx store. Their clothing, customs, and manners were alien to me. Looking back, I recognize that I and others who grew up in insolated enclaves looked at these women with a mix of mistrust, scorn and bigotry; part nature, part nurture, and an outsized portion of ignorance.

That attitude was part of who I was until I found my way clear of the neighborhood and discovered the rest of the world.

More valuable, though not quite realized amid the rush of a hurried life, were the seeds of awareness that took tender root. I just had to learn what was weed and what was flower.

Rest Well, Shirley

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The passing of Shirley Bianchi has me rummaging through my emotional couch cushions, looking for the right thoughts to express her impact on my spirit. I will write only what I know, and trust others will continue to share their memories as the quilt of her life is passed from heart to heart.

Shirley’s inspired political accomplishments are best shared by those who served with her, and those she served. And she served all, whether they voted for her or made other choices.


Courage and tenacity were the calling cards of her endless drive for environmental sanity and preservation. These chapters of a life lived in service are better written by those who sat alongside her, and across the table from her as that particular bit of history was made.

Her never-ending battle for equality, be it gender, economic, or identity, rolled with the force of the ocean. Her positions were delivered with frankness, steeled resolve, honesty, and humor. She wore her heart on her sleeve and her sweatshirt. Her lifetime of love, compassion, and devotion is best reflected in her family, her friendships, and her commitment to her faith.

Photo – Susan McDonald

My lasting memory will be our discussions around that faith. Shirley embraced the Catholic Church willingly, a choice she made later in life. I, conversely, have spent much of my adult life pushing it away, seeing only the wrongs I experienced while force-marched through a very different version of Catholicism. Where I saw fear, bigotry, and a reliance on blind obedience, Shirley embraced the tenets of love, hope, compassion and service.

Through these discussions, it became clear how she achieved so much, and why she was respected, valued, and loved by allies and opponents. Shirley listened quietly, found common ground, and maintained an openness to other points of view. Her stillness and focus sent a calming message that the discussion at hand was important and merited her attention.

I, the spiritual skeptic, recognized just what true grace on earth looks like. I hope to reach for that grace when faced with contention, and be just a little better at finding it in others.

Shirley Bianchi – fierce, gentle, combative, collaborative, relentless, and relenting, lived a long and valuable life with love in her heart and malice for none. There are shades of this grace radiating from her friends, her family, and those who use her as a guide in service to their communities and causes.

May her soul rest in peace, and may Perpetual Light shine on her, now and forever. And may peace be with you.

Go rest high on that mountain, Shirley.

For a fuller overview of Shirley Bianchi’s impact, please read Kathe Tanner’s beautiful piece in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, where those who knew and loved Shirley share their squares of the quilt.

https://www.sanluisobispo.com/article249548528.html



Shirley and Bill Bianchi, a beautiful love story

You Blockhead!

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” I have a weak back,” I said.
“Since when?” she asked.
“About a week back.” I answered gleefully, delivering the punchline.

As an ungracefully aging man, I have come to accept the realities that dumb things happen while doing non-dumb stuff. Give us an example, you say?

While drying off after a shower, I reached just the wrong way, causing every nerve along my lower back to burst into a chorus of something in the key of F*#@!

A simple twist led to over a week of decreased mobility, a glaring reminder of how quickly normalcy can be replaced by dependency. I don’t do a good job of maintaining a civil tongue when in pain or otherwise compromised. My behavior, I am told, often falls squarely between Hickory and Dock. My sometimes colorful exclamations garner some shocked looks and, “Oh, you’re from New York” comments from my California neighbors. Sorry, New York, it can’t be helped.

Baby Steps

After a couple of immobile days, I decided it would be all right to accompany my bride on a quick trip into town, where we did the traditional circling of the post office followed by the always exciting Cookie Crock dash. Fifteen or so minutes of sitting in the car did my back no favors. As I struggled to wiggle /squirm /heave myself upright while keeping the car door from slamming into my shins, I felt the old familiar kettle start to boil. My already-confessed short fuse, combined with the re-aggravated back, caused me another round of jerkery.

“It hurts when I go like that.”
“So, don’t go like that.”

We had pre-determined that we would refill a handful of the plastic water bottles that had piled up in the trunk. This chore, which I usually handle alone, became a bit of a team sport. My wife was being super-efficient, scrubbing every surface within the refill zone with a disinfecting wipe. I just wanted to get the job done in my usual way, which generally involves an elbow, two hands, a couple of pockets to hold the bottle caps, and a boatload of coins to feed the beast. I suppose, in hindsight, I could have explained my method before we started, but I have it on good authority that my style of explanation often elevates me to a second level of obnoxious. Plus, you know, my back hurt.

ANYWAY – things quickly became undone, with bottles in the wrong places, caps falling to the ground, and me not having a boatload of coins. The saint had a few, plus a couple of singles that could be fed into the machine. Rather than being pleased that she was so well prepared, I kicked it up a notch, from jerkery to total hole-ness, snapping “give me the money.”

Witnesses

As I turned away, I noticed two young ladies nearing the store entrance. They stopped and stared, slightly alarmed at the sight of a masked, cranky old guy snarling “give me the money” at a genteel, grey-haired woman holding a change purse and an empty plastic bag. We continued filling the bottles, and I didn’t give a second thought to the poor girls who possibly thought they were witnessing some type of street crime. It was only later, having moved from cranky to mortified, did I reflect on what went down at water world. 

Mea Culprit

So, to the two young ladies, and anyone else who may have witnessed my whiny, irrational, presidential-level hissy fit – I apologize. But you know, my back hurt…

sawstars

I saw stars.