Archive for category: Idiosyncratic Celebrations

A New Flag For Our Lawn

03 Jul 2015
July 3, 2015

I suggested some alternatives to the realtor who plants American flags on our lawns every 4th of July.

When it comes to our little plot of suburban heaven, we are outliers. We couldn’t care less about having a perfect lawn. No monthly weed treatments and I do all the mowing. Some years, to make its upkeep a little less mundane, I do creative mowing. The best thing you can say about our grass is it’s green. And, if you squint, it looks lush and, well, even greener.

Every year we get a new and different lawn. And, by that I mean a new and different species of weed takes over. We are beholden to the wind and rain for our greens. Sometimes it’s long and bushy, but this year we were lucky. It’s thick and low —great ground cover that only requires mowing every month or so. The grass doesn’t get taller; it gets denser. So, this morning, as a prequel to the July 4th holiday I got up early and started to mow. We live at an entrance to a 500 acre park and many will be parking their cars next to our house to hike in. I didn’t want to be the embarrassment of the neighborhood.

Halfway through this chore I saw a woman walking down the street planting small plastic American flags by each house’s driveway. I’ve known this woman for over ten years. She is one of our local realtors and, even though she has denied it, this is a well-known marketing scheme in real estate. Our first conversation about it was over the phone in 2003:

I introduced myself and asked if she had been the one to place the flag in our front yard. “Yes,” she admitted proudly. “That was me.” I began by asking her if she had considered asking homeowners if she could place the flag on our lawns. The notion of land ownership is also deeply imbedded in the American psyche. We fought a civil war over rules of ownership. I didn’t appreciate her assumption I would be pleased with the gift she left in front of my house. She told me it would have been difficult to ask each homeowner as she had placed over 700 flags throughout the area. I suggested this might be a reason to rethink her act of generosity.

She didn’t quite understand my initial dismay but, over the years we’ve come to respect each other. She emigrated many years ago from Greece and I can appreciate her perspective. Now, she never places a flag on our lawn without asking and I don’t force her to listen to my didactic lecture on the selling of American patriotism.

So, when I saw her this morning I stopped my mowing to chat. At first, I didn’t recognize her and thought another agent had taken over the flag placements for her. Just a new hairdo and change of color. I was glad to see her. Our yearly get-together has become a 4th of July tradition. And we caught up on the last year.

Suddenly, I had an idea. “You know what would have been great?” I said to her. “If you had placed rainbow flags up and down the street instead of American flags.” She didn’t understand so I made the connection. “It’s so timely and would make such a wonderful statement.” She said that they have to order the flags months in advance so she couldn’t have known to order different flags back then. I told her I was just kidding, well in a “can’t we dream” sort of way. “Oh, wait,” trying to think of a twist she could relate to. “You’re from Greece. What if you had put Greek flags up and down the street to make a statement about the country’s debt crisis?” “Well, Greek Independence Day is celebrated in March,” she replied. Why do people always take me so literally? But I had one last thought: “The finals of the Women’s World Soccer Cup are Sunday. What if you put American and Japanese flags on lawns to celebrate that?” “Would you let me put them on your lawn?” she asked. “Um, maybe.”

When it comes to our little plot of suburban America, we are outliers. Way outliers.

A Homecoming Back to Me

19 Jan 2014
January 19, 2014
2014 Rose Bowl Game

The 2014 Rose Bowl Game

I’m not a sports junky. In fact, I’m worse. I’m a fair-weather sports fan filed under the subcategory “College Sports/Only Schools I Went To.” And that means just football and basketball. So, I follow two schools, both my alma maters: Michigan State, where I got my undergraduate degree and UCLA where I got my MFA. Oh, and as a fallback, I will sometimes follow the University of Maryland just because I live in Maryland (I may follow it more in the coming years because it’s just about to enter the Big Ten, home to my MSU Spartans.)

That’s as sports-minded as I get.

Ever since I entered State I had hoped they’d go to the Rose Bowl. They had the year before I came in as a freshman and the thought of coming home to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation only to top it off with a trip to Pasadena was my most fervent college wish. Alas, they didn’t. Nor did UCLA go during my three years there.

Now, that’s not to say I had never gone to a Rose Bowl game. In fact, I did. January 1, 1970 I attended the 56th Rose Bowl match between the Michigan Wolverines (NOT to be confused with the Michigan State Spartans please) and USC. But there was a heavy cloud hanging over me that day.

I had flown home from school a couple weeks before, picked up at the airport by my father who suddenly suggested we go for a walk on the beach. There he told my sister and I that my mother was dying, she had six months to live, and that we were not allowed to tell her. It was a heavy burden for me to carry. And the thought of going back to school after the holidays, thinking I’d never see my mother again, was that cloud that seemed to follow me. I have written about this before so I won’t belabor you with details. My father was trying to do the best he could and thought that a trip to the Rose Bowl with friends of the family would help.

To this day that Christmas vacation has been hanging around me in one form or another. And I have devoted a large portion of my life working to put it in its rightful place: a sad memory and one that no longer held me under that cloud.

So, when MSU beat Ohio State for the Big 10 Championship this year (by the way, I turned the game off when it looked like Ohio State was surging —yes, I am that fair-weathered sports junky— only to be totally surprised the next morning to learn that the Spartans had won), I walked into the kitchen and boldly announced that I wanted to go to the 100th Rose Bowl. My oldest daughter, a gymnast, cheerleader, and dating a football player, immediately chimed in: “Me too!” So it was set. My daughter and I were going to go to the Rose Bowl. My wife and younger daughter were not even remotely sports-minded. Yeah, you know those spur-of-the-moment declarations. No thinking required.

The trip was on, then off numerous times during the next two weeks. The school ran out of tickets, those who had them wanted $1500 a piece, United Airlines had frequent flyer tickets available; then they didn’t. There were numerous parts to this puzzle that had to come together. But they never seemed to come together at the same time. I watched the game ticket prices fall on Stubhub (the aftermarket website that has become to “go to” for ticket deals to games and concerts). But not far enough. Finally, twelve days after my initial pronouncement, suddenly game tickets were going for a “reasonably” unreasonable amount. And just as suddenly, United frequent flyer seats during the busiest week of the year suddenly appeared. It was meant to be. I locked everything in. And we were set.

I was excited about the game. But suddenly, I remembered my last trip to the Rose Bowl 44 years before. This trip immediately took an extraordinary turn when it occurred to me that I could right a memory with a new one. Not exorcise it, but simply include a ying to that horrible yang.

When we arrived at LAX, we got the rental car and drove immediately to the beach. It wasn’t necessary to find that rock my sister and I sat on so many years ago, but I wanted to look out at the Pacific with my daughter. This present would stand in front of that past. I now had my own family and my own children. I’ve always tried to be there for them but this time my daughter was there for me. It became the new normal for me.

I couldn’t help reflect on this dichotomy throughout our trip. My daughter and I never discussed it; it just was there, sort of like that cloud many decades ago, only this time it was just a reminder. And, during the game I thought about sitting in that stadium years ago. I knew exactly where I had sat and I remembered how overcast it was that day. But this time it was sunny and warm and I seemed to be amongst lots of friends (even the Stanford fans sitting in front of us). And, it didn’t even matter if we won (although, I can tell you that if I’d been watching the game on TV I would have turned it off after the first quarter when Stanford led 10-0 —yes I’m still fair-weathered).

The facts were clear: I had survived that horrible time and made my way to something better. As children, we must rely on our parents to protect and comfort us. We have no ability to rationalize the real world: a world that often is as cruel as it is triumphant. We simply don’t understand. We only feel.

We won!

We all won!

Our trip to the Rose Bowl was more than just a trip to a great game. It was spending some quality time with my daughter. It was realizing just how far I’d come. It was a homecoming I’d made for myself, not back to L.A. —it was a homecoming back to me.

The Rally for Sanity? It Was Insane!

31 Oct 2010
October 31, 2010
Standing at the rally with my poster

I positioned us at the Rally for a good photo op of the Capitol.

At the last minute I decided to bring one of my Chamomile Tea Party posters to the Rally for Sanity here on the National Mall yesterday. So Friday afternoon I got it printed BIG. You might wonder why this wasn’t on my radar weeks ago. After all, procrastination is not my usual style. Let’s see, there’s work, soccer games, work, grocery shopping, exhaustion, and work –well, you get the picture. The Chamomile Tea Party is my “side” biz. Promotion is key to any success but my methodology doesn’t normally include rallies. And my volunteer base is, shall we say, minimal. All I needed, though, was a kick in the pants. And that came from a coworker.

On Friday she said “favorited” my latest poster on Flickr. And when I wrote to thank her she said “You’re bringing it to the rally, right?” And, suddenly, my über promotional skills kicked in (I knew they were in there somewhere). I downloaded the poster from my own Flickr stream, had someone print it 30″ x 40″, rolled it up and brought it home. When I arrived at the house my chief volunteer (my wife) greeted me at the door with a huge piece of Foam Core and double-sided tape. Team Chamomile mounted it to the board and I was set.

As a rally veteran of the National Mall (you might remember my sojourn to the Inauguration) I like to have a plan. I survey the details of the event and then decide which stop on the Metro to exit and just where to find the choicest place to stand. But I have to balance that with realities: did I want to get up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to rouse my 14 year old (she’s a veteran too but needs her sleep)? A balanced approach is key. Staking out a spot in the front row is usually not part of my strategy.

The Rally began at noon but we got there at 10. My sign was a bit unwieldy but light. My first reaction to the poster came as we sat down in the subway car. A smile and then “Great poster!” from the family sitting across from us. The day was beginning just right. As we exited the Metro I headed towards a meet up with The Coffee Party, a large group whose “dial-it-down” philosophy matches my own. Along the way, I wanted to stop off at the meeting area for GovLoop, a social media site for local, state, and federal government workers I’ve contributed to. As I walked down the street, I held my sign facing forward and the poster love really commenced. Knowing smiles and pointing as we passed. I felt like I was on stage. No longer the behind-the-scenes creative I was walking my walk.

When my daughter and I got to the Coffee Party meet up point no one was to be found. And, suddenly, I could see why. There were people who DID get up at 5 a.m. to get to the Mall. Thousands of them. And if we didn’t get our place soon, we would be pushed to the hinterlands. The Coffee Party must have staked out their spot and we needed to do the same. So we got as close to the stage as we could and I positioned us as close to the middle of the Mall to get the Capitol centered in any pic I took (what I lack in organizational skills I make up for in photographic composition). Yet, I realized as we watched the large video screens on the sides that the organizers had roving cameras looking for interesting signs and costumes and we were too far away for any of that free publicity.

And this brings me to the root of my dilemma. I think hard and I work hard –even on these posters. I love getting my work out there. But there was part of me that just wanted to enjoy the day with my daughter and the hundreds of thousands of others who were tired of the political positioning, the elections, and the dogma. Promotion of my posters –yes I did some of that. People all around me wanted to take a photo of it. And I always “pressed the flesh” with my signature “You can download them yourself at chamomileteaparty.com.” During the rally, I would often hold it up high and make a 360. And when the rally was over, I held it above my head on the slow trek out of the area. But I didn’t want to forget why we were there in the first place.

The front page of the Huffington Post

Others had brought their Chamomile Tea Party posters to the Rally! Click on image for larger view.

This morning, as I surveyed the online world, I suddenly discovered that I had more volunteers at the Rally than I thought. This photo of some of my other posters made it to the front page of the Huffington Post! I’d been promoting my “download and bring to the rally” approach for weeks. And some good people actually did it. It’s gratifying to see others take up your efforts and turn it into their own.

The best part of the day? On a packed subway ride home, my daughter and I finally got a seat near the end of the line. It was the first time we had sat down all day. I put my arm around her and said “What’cha think?” “I liked it,” she said, “but I didn’t understand all the words they used.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like liberal. I know I should know that but I don’t.” “Well, you see,” I replied, “there are liberals and conservatives. Sort of like Democrats and Republicans but a bit different…”

A Valuable Anniversary Gift

31 May 2010
May 31, 2010
money watch

My anniversary gift, set to the time we were married. Click on image for larger view.

Yesterday was our seventeenth wedding anniversary. And while I wasn’t expecting furniture, the traditional gift for this celebration, I definitely wasn’t expecting this!

I woke up to Susie’s loving warning: “Don’t come out until I tell you!” I obeyed. And when she finally gave me the signal I made my way the kitchen. “I know you’ve been lusting over a special watch so I wanted to give you this to go towards it,” she said. I noticed the smile in her eyes.

My heart leaped. Her gift, a watch made out of a fifty-dollar bill for the wristband and a dollar bill for the face, was beautiful. The hands were red thread, set to 3:30, the time we were married seventeen years ago. I was blown away. “There’s no way I would ever use this money for anything,” I replied. The Hamilton Ventura, one of the classiest watches ever made, paled by comparison (and truth be known, I simply couldn’t justify paying so much for a watch, no matter how beautiful it was).

In my family I am known as the consummate gift giver. And, as we all know, a good gift giver’s standards are often so high, it’s almost impossible to buy him anything. Almost, but not impossible. It’s not the monetary value of a gift that counts. It’s the thought that went into choosing it that’s really the gift. Rule 7 on my list on how to be a good gift giver: the best gifts cost little (or nothing). My wife had transformed legal tender into something much more valuable than its face value. This was the artist I fell in love with the first time I saw her art in a show in Baltimore.

“You mean you’re not going to spend the money?” “No way, you could have used two one dollar bills and it’s value would have been just as sweet,” I replied.

After 17 years, it’s nice to know the romance is still there. But I’ve refused my wife’s offer to remake the wristband using cheaper materials.

Thanks for the Meat and Heat

26 Nov 2009
November 26, 2009
Thanksgiving in the Park

The view from our house. Click on image to enlarge.

Woke up this Thanksgiving to dense fog. After a little breakfast in the peace and quiet of the early morning I put my coat on over my PJs and walked a few feet out our front door to take this photograph. The last of the colorful autumn leaves was a great counterpoint to the atmospheric mist just above the forest path. To my Southern California friends who are expecting an 80°F holiday, eat your hearts out. This is what Thanksgiving is supposed to look like!

Now that everyone is up, Susie and the girls are making a pumpkin chocolate chip pie (yes, you heard me, chocolate chips!). The girls refuse to take credit for this artful derivative of the Thanksgiving classic (and so do I). It was all Susie’s idea. I will report on her success later. Much later.

Another first for this holiday: the Gates/Krasnican household, for the first time ever, is hosting a piece of pork for tonight’s dinner (in addition to our turkey). A smoked ham. This, too, was my wife’s idea. (What’s gotten into her? She was once an ardent vegetarian.) And while she still refuses to eat that porker, just having it in our house is an odd treat for the rest of us.

However, a few minutes ago, I was called into emergency service. All of a sudden, Susie began to think this ham needed to be soaked for 24 hours before eating. In addition, we couldn’t tell if the ham just needed to be warmed up or fully cooked. The thought never occurred to us that it wasn’t “heat and eat.” What do we know about preparing meat? After surfing the ham manufacturer’s Web site we still couldn’t tell. I ran to the market and enlisted the aid of the meat guy who filled me in. “A few years ago, your ham was fully cooked and advertised as ‘ready to eat.’ But meat safety became an issue and now the packages say the hams are cooked but need to be even more cooked. So put it in the oven for about an hour, hour and a half, until the inside temp is about 160. Then it will be ready to eat.” I bought a meat thermometer (another family first) and headed home.

As for me, I’ve been granted a temporary leave from the kitchen. I’m now sitting in front of the computer writing this missive while listening to Sarah Vaughn’s rendition of Summertime. Yes, it’s a cozy and cool late November day, just what Thanksgiving is supposed to be. But that doesn’t mean I’ve completely sworn off a fully-cooked, baked-to-perfection holiday with a bit of summertime heat.

Sixty is the New Forty!

17 Jul 2009
July 17, 2009
Horoscope for July 17th

As I enter geezerhood my only consolation is that someday I’ll look back and say “Ah to be 60 again!” To those of you who might discount those of the older persuasion remember the words of John Bradford: “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” There but for the grace of God go I. Some day you too will ask yourself “How did this happen?” It seems to happen with quiet determination.

So when do I get my senior discount? No, better yet, when do I get my own Wikipedia page?

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074