Dinner with the new guy

To have a child
is to forever have your heart
walking around outside your body

Elizabeth Stone

It’s not an exact quote, but it’s as accurate a description of my thoughts on the thing as I’ve seen yet. Our latest great-grandchild is Connor, now in his sixth month of sizing up the world and gazing with unblinking curiosity at all of us in his gene pool.

We celebrated his first holiday season with an early dinner at the Olive Garden, four generations of us happily joined around the table, myself at one seat just a week short of my 77th birthday and the rest of us spread along the long timeline between myself and Connor who sat across from me enjoying his dinner in his mother’s arms, bright-eyed and gurgling as he gazed from mother to father to grandmother and grandfather and great-grandmother and great-grandfather, each of us patiently waiting for the chance to hold him.

I don’t know why it is that we can enjoy such blessings while families elsewhere must risk their own children in little boats in choppy seas trying to escape the murderous hatreds of the tribal wars playing out between fanatics convinced that the death of children is the will of their personal gods. The reports are that a million or so refugees have fled to Europe this year, and if you count the families and individuals fleeing from all the troubled places in the world, the total number is high enough to make us all blush with shame.

By what logic does this happen? Where is it written, in any language, in any culture, in the holy books of any religion, that the deaths of innocent children are acceptable collateral damage in the evolution of civilization? Robert F. Kennedy was fond of quoting from the great French writer Albert Camus that while we cannot eliminate the suffering of children, we can lessen the number of children who suffer. Surely the true measure of how civilized we are is how much we lessen that number, or try to.

It’s comforting to know that there are a good many people around the world who are trying to do just that. Some are succeeding. There are doctors donating a good part of their working years to providing health care to kids in impoverished areas; there is UNICEF; there is Children’s Relief International and Save the Children and dozens of other such outfits. May their efforts bear fruit.

There is cause in all that for optimism. I heard recently from Mark Kennedy Shriver, one of the leaders of the Save the Children organization, who is indefatigable in his efforts on behalf of children around the world. To learn how to help him in his efforts, visit www.savethechildren.org

Being a perennial optimist, I may be trapped by my own reading, caught between the realism of Camus accepting that you cannot completely ensure than no child anywhere will suffer, and the stubborn optimism of Voltaire’s Candide who, even after seeing his optimism dashed on the rocks of harsh reality, stubbornly retained enough optimism to keep cultivating his own garden, even if no longer trying to save the world. Still, it is always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Long thoughts, for a man holding a smiling great-grandson in his arms. But to him, and to you, my best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins

3 sniffs of cinnamon, a whiff of nutmeg

It is a small ritual, one of several with which I start each day, and comes as part of making the morning coffee; a private routine to ease me gently from the world of sleep into the movements of the day. Some days I don’t make coffee at all. Most days I do, in the luxury of semi-retirement that allows me to control my own time without rushing off to court or conference or other demanding errand. I use CDM – a New Orleans blend served at the world-famous Café du Monde at Jackson Square in the French Quarter where you can sip your café au lait under the awning and savor your beignet dusted with powdered sugar while listening to a street musician playing his saxophone for tips.

In the interim between loading fresh coffee grounds into the filter basket and filling the coffee making machine’s water reservoir, I add my favorite spices; two sprinkles of cinnamon and a shake of nutmeg. Then I treat myself to three long sniffs of cinnamon, inhaling it to the bottom of my lungs and savoring the refreshing scent of the spice. It wakes up my senses and gives me a bit of a high, physically, mentally and emotionally. That, and a whiff of the nutmeg.

Havng lately grown into a creature who associates scents and fragrances with happy memories and adventurous daydreams, my small routine reassures me that whatever the day may hold, there will be good in it; much of the stuff that makes me glad to be alive.

I confess that I came late to an appreciation of such subtleties. The first time I heard the phrase “aroma therapy” I thought it a pretentious description of the ordinary awareness of the smell of good cooking or of a Christmas tree. For most of my life I never consciously identified individual spices, and would never think of adding them to food or drink. Crisp mornings on Marine Corps rifle ranges waiting for the sun to come up trained me to take my coffee without cream or sugar. Coffee was either strong and black or weak and watery, depending on the diner, café, or convenience store.

A longtime friend of mine gifted with a preternaturally keen sense of taste and smell first alerted me to the richness of the world of spices, smells, fragrances and the benefits of putting your nose and taste buds to work. That is a rich world indeed. But the olfactory nerves are lazy critters and won’t work too hard on their own unless a scent is overwhelming. You have to teach yourself to pay attention. It’s worth it because once you do you learn that the slightest hint of a particular smell can transport you immediately to whatever instant you first experienced it, whether it was the perfume your sweetheart wore on your first date, Tandoori chicken in a London restaurant, hot asphalt newly laid on a country road, or the salt of the ocean when you first come near the shore. The chance drift of smoke from a friendly woodfire can bring back entire campfire breakfasts of ham and eggs under friendly trees in the brisk Autumn air of a mountain campsite. Scents can evoke with equal ease memories of the spearmint liniments of the locker room or bacon sizzling in the pan.

Wine lovers train themselves to appreciate and identify the individual bouquets of dozens of wines. Cheese vendors can identify cheeses from a dozen different locals and cultures with their eyes shut. And who can sit down to a fine Italian meal without savoring the tantalizing blend of garlic, olive oil, cheese and wine their nose announces awaits them?

Have I mentioned candles? This holiday season the heavy scents of pine, vanilla and cloves greet you in every store. Then there’s the eggnog, the brandy and the rum and, wafting from the oven, the unmistakable fragrance of fresh gingerbread.

Most of all, there is for me that delightful whiff of cinnamon that starts my day. Give it a try some rainy morning when you need something for the spirit.

© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins

Christmas at the White House

We are in the midst of the December television traditions that have taken root in our homes over the years. Specials and spectaculars crowd the TV listings from Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade right on through the Mummer’s strut up Broad Street on New Year’s Day,. You can’t miss Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney’s classic “White Christmas,” or Darren McGavin’s notorious Chorus Girl’s leg lamp or, for that matter, George C. Scott’s masterful interpretation of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge is a character celebrating his 172nd birthday and going stronger than ever, beloved by the public and the hundreds of actors who have paid their Christmas bills playing the role of that irascible miser.

I’m feeling a bit of the “Bah! Humbug!” spirit myself, having spent an hour watching this year’s “White House Christmas” special on HGTV, co-sponsored by the White House Historical Association. I am usually a sucker for Christmas schmaltz and go soft at the first sound of “Silver Bells” or “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” And with all the nastiness President and Mrs. Obama put up with all year, the last thing they need is a good Democrat knocking their taste in Christmas decorations in their White House.

But there comes a time when you have to stand up for the stuff that matters, and Christmas at the White House is such a time. It’s my good fortune to have been at the White House a fair number of times, on days of heady history as well as quiet news days. It is unique in its beauty, its majesty, and its reflection of our people. Also in the skullduggery and peccadillos of our politicians, as well as their greater qualities. This is where the likes of Thomas Jefferson, both Roosevelts, Truman and JFK lived and worked. Slaves built it, and the descendants of slaves preside over it gracefully today in the persons of first lady Michelle Robinson Obama and Presidential daughters Malia and Natasha.

Like so many Americans, I feel a vague but persistent obligation to protect the White House. I remember the incongruous resentment I felt at President Johnson when, in a stage-managed show of economy, he ordered numerous lights to be turned off, including the outside lighting that kept the White House brilliant on the darkest nights. It seemed downright disrespectful, even clandestine, especially after the bright lights of the Kennedy Administration.

That same protective urge leads me to protest the tasteless excess of this year’s decorating binge as shown on HGTV’s recent special, co-sponsored by the White House Historical Association. The program showed an army of eager volunteers swarming into the White House with boxes of ornaments, displays, wreathes, garlands, balls and kitschy glitter that turned that elegant home into the pipe-dream of a tacky department-store show window designer. No surface was left uncluttered; no eyesore unused.

The White House Historical Association is a prestigious and hardworking non-profit founded in 1961 with a strong impetus from then first-lady Jackie Kennedy. Its current Vice President and Chief White House Historian Dr. Bill Bushong, who once spent half a day giving me a personal tour of the Decatur House on Lafayette Square, has labored in the dusty bins of White House history for years, working to keep the story of the White House fresh and vibrant for all Americans. I admire his dedication, and that of his organization.

Michelle Obama has been a leading figure in making the White House special to thousands and thousands of visitors, from school kids planting vegetables on the South Lawn to the families of thousands of servicemen and women, and making sure they get full access to the many special events in their honor.

I admire their work, and can only hope that next year, they will be able to restrain the unseemly excess of whichever elves stapled chicken wire and hung plastic icicles and snowflakes to the ceiling of the east colonnade hallway, populated the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden with Styrofoam snowmen, and otherwise over-egged the Christmas pudding.

© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins

Aunt Tess’s Christmas present

December is a tough month for her, beginning with the December 7th anniversary of Pearl Harbor that fills the television with war movies and memories of her nine long-gone brothers who fought in that great conflict, and closing with the death of her older sister ( my mother) on Christmas Eve of ’42. I was a week short of my fourth birthday when that happened, and never understood why I always felt down as Christmas approached until she told me why that date would affect me so.

It affects her, too, although she never lets it show. She’s a tough old girl, now in her high eighties after a life that featured lying about her age to join the WAC’s in ’44, making her living afterwards as the first woman cash count manager for a big Philadelphia supermarket chain, becoming the first woman officer in her Teamsters’ local, marrying a cop and raising his kids and nursing him through the cancer that took him away, and buying a small food store in Cape May after she retired. She was present every Christmas in my life, surreptitiously gave me sips of my first beer at the outdoor table of a Boardwalk restaurant the summer I was 16, and was in my corner at every major development in my life.

Ever since I realized what December meant to her, I’ve made it a point to give Aunt Tess her Christmas present early in the month. It cheers us both up. She’s not easy to shop for, never dropping hints about what she likes. In fact, she never lets herself want anything she can do without. Usually I give her a scarf or such. But a few years ago I made a lucky guess and bought her a smartphone. She took to it like a duck to water, and is always on the lookout for the latest app. The Assisted Living hasn’t been the same place since.

This year, on the theory that her eyes were aging a lot faster than her mind, I got her one of the new, much larger iPhones. I had no idea what I was starting. Turns out she’s become a YouTube video addict.

“I can’t believe what’s on that thing,” she called after a few days playing with her new toy. “I was trying to search for information on my new medicine and ended up watching a documentary on how some British engineer decided to build a replica of some bridge that Caesar built so he could chase German tribes across the Rhine. Cut down trees, built a huge wooden crane on a raft so he could drive pilings, and showed how Caesar did it. My father was an engineer at the Navy Yard and would have loved to see that video. I made Becky Gottlieb watch it again with me. She was as fascinated as I was” Becky is her best buddy at Assisted Living, a Brooklyn transplant with a razor sharp mind delighted to find a friend who could keep up with her.

“Those things are addictive,” I cautioned.”She’ll be borrowing your iPhone every ten minutes.”

“No, she won’t,” Tess assured me. “First thing she did was make her son buy one for her.”

I had visions of those two old sharpies turned loose on the world of internet videos and the high-tech world. It used to be rocking chairs on the porch and knitting bees. Now it’s Roman bridges, iPhones and lord knows what else. I shudder to think what will happen when they start learning what’s going on with 3D printing. Probably be flying homemade drones over the gazebo at the Assisted Living.

© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins