As Easter Approaches

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on April 21, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

This past Sunday marked the beginning of Catholicism’s “high holy days” with Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and eventual showdown with Pontius Pilate. It is one of the six Holy Days of Obligation in the Catholic Church. These mark important events that merit participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. On Holy Days, much like Sundays, Catholics are supposed to refrain from unnecessary work and attend church services. As a child, Palm Sunday meant three things: we got the brand new parish calendars (with the dates of all the upcoming parish league basketball games), we received our palm fronds (plastic-like, yellow-green leaves that we formed into crosses and put over our beds), and finally, that Easter Sunday was only a week away! For Catholic children who’d been forced to give up something meaningful for the 40-day Lenten season that culminates on Easter morning, this was the light at the end of the tunnel.

I grew up believing that the Easter season was chock-o-block with Holy Days and the dreaded weekday masses they entailed. My mom pulled us off playgrounds for masses on Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent which finds Catholics receiving ashes on our foreheads while praying for strength in preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection), Holy Thursday (the day on which Jesus and his disciples have the Last Supper), and Good Friday (the day on which Jesus was killed). It was only while looking into joining the seminary after college that I learned that none of these days required us to go to mass. With seven rowdy kids on her hands, my mom kept up the ruse in a desperate attempt to save our souls through overexposure.

She also “suggested” the items we give up for Lent each year, and inevitably that meant no sweets at all. By the time Easter Sunday rolled around, the Walsh kids were irritable and jumpy in the throes of sugar withdrawal; we counted down the hours like addicts outside a methadone clinic and dreamed of the baskets of candy that waited for us upon our return home. Because my mom forbade us to touch them until after mass, we spent our morning trying not to hate the children snacking on chocolate bunnies in the pews around us.

How the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been marketed into a festival of marshmallow chicks and egg-shaped chocolate lorded over by a giant rabbit is beyond me. Even as a child with a harelip who should have seen this animal as a role model, I saw little value in the Easter Bunny. He doesn’t even have an opposable thumb! Easter celebrates our victory–through the death and resurrection of Jesus–over eternal death, but all the Easter Bunny does is hop around and hide eggs. I was never even clear on whether the bunny was the one leaving us the candy baskets in the first place, so weak was his connection to the holiday. Still, you don’t look a gift-bunny in the mouth, especially if it means free candy.

The Lenten season culminates with the Holy Day of Ascension, commemorating the bodily elevation of Jesus up to Heaven of His own will forty days after rising from the dead. As a child, this was always the most pertinent symbol of the power of Christ, mostly because of a picture in my Junior Bible. It showed Jesus flying straight up into Heaven as his disciples watched, amazed, from the ground. Organized religion needs more pictures of their figureheads flying into space or lifting heavy objects, especially when competing with bunnies carrying baskets of peanut butter eggs.

To this day my mom can’t quite remember all the days she arbitrarily assigned to Holy Day status without Papal knowledge. More likely than not, she probably took our moral inventory and made it up as she went along if she began to fear for our eternal souls. In later years I learned the term for how my mom took us on these unannounced trips to the church for confession or extra masses: intermittent reinforcement. Because we lived in fear that we could be dragged in front of an altar at any moment, we had to make sure we kept our sinning in check.

Whether you are celebrating Easter (Christian), Mahavir Jayanti (Jain), the Theravadin New Year (Buddhist), the Lord’s Evening Meal (Jehovah’s Witness), Hanuman Jayanti (Hindu), Passover (Jewish), the First Day of Ridvan (Baha’i), or any other religious holiday during these two weeks, I wish you and yours a wonderful observance. And, if permitted, maybe a few of those peanut butter eggs…

“That’s Clearly Over The Line”

It’s an amazing era to be alive, mostly because You Tube has archived our most embarrassing moments in perpetuity. This morning I was forwarded a video of my childhood nemesis, Lawrence Welk, the man my parents chose to watch instead of “The Six Million Dollar Man” on our only TV. Welk’s wholesome blend of gospel, orchestral, and country music was inflicted on America for more than twenty-seven years before it was perpetrated again on that generation’s offspring in the form of endless syndication on PBS. The purity of The Lawrence Welk Show made Ed Sullivan look like Timothy Leary, yet clearly one of his producers let one slip past the goalie in this particular episode broadcast in early 1971. The duo of Gail Farrell and Dick Dale performed “One Toke Over The Line” as a gospel/country number… and with straight faces!

To appreciate the irony, it’s important to note that Brewer & Shipley’s song (and only hit) had just been banned by the FCC. The Vice President of the United States at the time, Spiro Agnew, had just named them personally as dangerous and subversive to American youth. On April 15, 1971, Rolling Stone magazine wrote that the song, “began a steady cruise up the charts – until the FCC issued it’s ‘reminder’ to broadcasters to know the meaning of songs that ‘tend to glorify or promote the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana, LSD, speed, etc.’ Now, at least half a dozen Top 40 stations have dropped the single.”

Explaining the meaning behind his lyrics, Michael Brewer  said, “One day we were pretty much stoned and all and Tom says, Man, I’m one toke over the line tonight.   I liked the way that sounded and so I wrote a song around it.” In fact, Shipley often introduced the song in concert as “our cannabis spiritual.”

How fitting, then, that Lawrence Welk looked on approvingly at the end of the song and said, “And there you heard a modern spiritual by Gail & Dale.”

There is something deliciously appropriate in seeing those who hold themselves up as paragons of virtue unwittingly switching sides for a moment. In a state of religious fervor, one of Welk’s producers must have heard the words “sweet Jesus” and “sweet Mary” and completely missed that Mary was actually Mary Jane. A song referencing pre-marital sex and smoking pot, sung by a woman dressed as a cowgirl as she bounces on the lap of a grown man? That is really “over the line.”

Webpage Training Wheels

I’m kicking the tires on some new website additions, the first of which is this more functional blog interface. I have no idea how these things will turn out because my webmaster (me) is notoriously dim. I hope to tweak it over time, but for now it’s mostly for archival purposes. If you notice any dead links, please draw a chalk outline around them and let me know via the Contact Me link on the home page. There is a Contact form at the bottom for any comments or questions.

The Hidden Cost of “Saving”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on April 4, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

Especially in today’s economic climate, most of us are looking for the town leadership to find ways to spend our money wisely. Unfortunately, sometimes decisions based on short-term savings and political expediency can prove disastrous over the long haul. One such decision was the recent elimination of an assistant Animal Control Officer (ACO) position. There are numerous arguments to be made about our moral duties to animals in this town and how their treatment is a reflection on us all. Others might argue that pet owners without children in our public schools deserve this tangible return on their tax dollars. However, while these might be strong arguments, I’d rather offer a more practical, economic rationale for the importance of re-instating this position.

First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I must share that I not only fully supported the new Animal Control facility slated for completion in early June, but also served on the first committee to pick its location. The numbers proved that the old facility on Frog Pond was simply inadequate for the growing needs of the department regardless of its location or cost. How ludicrous, then, to build a facility with twice the capacity but staffed at two-thirds the previous level!

A little perspective is important: According to Stratford’s “Proposed Operating Budget Expenditure Analysis for 2012,” only 5.2% of our tax dollars will go to funding our police department. Of that small percentage, that department will spend more on the combination of overtime and uniform maintenance than on the entire annual budget for Animal Control. I believe the police department should have an even higher budget, so these levels prove that properly funding the Animal Control Division is not a high-ticket item. Projected savings to the 2012 budget for eliminating the assistant ACO position is only $44,504, yet the fees, licenses, and other surcharges for dogs alone in 2011 are expected to generate $32,500 for the town. A bigger facility will most likely mean more revenue provided it’s appropriately staffed, so surely it makes fiscal sense to maximize this additional revenue potential?

Even more important than the financial evidence is the issue of public safety. Marjean O’Malley, President of the Stratford Animal Rescue Society (STARS), states that our Animal Control Officers answer 3,600 calls a year out on road and handle almost 4,000 visitors in addition to handling the daily needs of the animals already at the facility. At the same time, they must complete the requisite paperwork that comes from impounding animals at a rate of almost 600 a year. Response times will be adversely affected because there will often be only one ACO on duty (due to scheduled days off, holidays, vacation, etc.).

Already understaffed before this position was cut, taxpayers will soon notice additional ramifications, including dramatically reduced facility hours that undercut the entire philosophy of the new building. Rather than using the new community room for a variety of public services, the doors will shut at night and on weekends. Public bathrooms for users of the Greenway will be unavailable most times because either the two remaining officers are off-duty or on call. Stray pets picked up on Friday will be stuck in the kennels until Monday morning before their owners can retrieve them. The low-cost vaccination and education programs that created such excitement when designs for the new facility were first released will not be available for those who work during these limited hours of operation.

Lastly, understaffing this particular department actually costs the town money in the end. The Animal Control department enjoys a unique and committed relationship with volunteers in the community that should be fostered rather than choked off due to staffing concerns. Organizations such as STARS consistently raise money to cover yearly budgetary shortfalls and other items not included in the town budget. Last year alone they raised $40,000 to make sure each animal is spayed, neutered, vaccinated, and micro-chipped before it leaves for a new home. The role of Animal Control has moved far beyond mere “dog warden” in its attempt to rehabilitate and re-introduce animals to a grateful and more informed public. A significant portion of the 53% rise in Animal Control activity is due to dramatic increases in the rates of pet redemption and adoption. Sadly, the rate of euthanizing these animals, which had trended downward until 2010, will most likely rise with the loss of the resources to re-train and redistribute them to qualified homes.  Instead, based on current impound, we’ll spend an estimated $60,000 to kill them (or about $16,000 more than the third ACO would cost).

The irony is that by “saving” money on one position, we cost ourselves much more in loss of volunteer hours. Due to liability concerns, volunteers are not allowed in the building unless an Animal Control officer staffs it. Animal Control Officers and Kennel Attendants are all vaccinated for rabies, drug tested, and required to pass a background check. Volunteers may only handle animals that have been advertised in the paper and held for 7 days, thus becoming the legal property of the Town of Stratford. In addition, all animals must pass a temperament test administered by Animal Control staff prior to being handled by a volunteer because they have extensive experience and training in dealing with potentially aggressive animals and disease control procedures. Road calls can only be handled by Animal Control Officers with knowledge of laws pertaining to animals and expert animal handling skills. Even the 12-hour training program required for volunteers to help is at risk due to the limited hours and manpower. STARS and other volunteer groups provide the money and time to augment town services that we simply cannot afford to lose in this economy.

In short, eliminating this position will cost us dearly. Animal Control issues—like other police, fire, or medial emergencies—do not adhere to “banker’s hours.” It is a critical public service with which we cannot play political cat and mouse.