Homemade Holidays

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on June 30, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

I had an interesting conversation with some eighth graders the other day—yes, it can be done. They outlined their summer vacation plans in relation to two national holidays that bookend their seven-week break: the 4th of July and Labor Day. As they spoke of the coming academic year, they continued to use holidays as the milestones with which to mark important events.

I find it sad that they see the days ahead as a small number of “important” dates in a sea of “filler days.” It’s like the people who celebrate “hump-day” every Wednesday because it’s halfway to the weekend, an outlook that reduces five days of the week to drudgery in the hopes they’ll enjoy the final two. What a rotten ratio.

Of course, as a teacher, I’m constantly planning my instructional units against the holiday calendar. I’ve been around long enough to know I have to finish a unit before vacation, otherwise the Magic Troll robs my students of all memories of what I taught them before the break. During the school year alone, we have Labor Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Groundhog Day (okay, a bit of a stretch), Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, April Fools Day (even more of a stretch unless you’re a middle school teacher), Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and Father’s Day. This list doesn’t even include other religious holidays such as Easter, Passover, and others that don’t coincide with winter or spring breaks. No wonder our children begin to think in terms of “important” days and “other” days. Shouldn’t every day be important?

What we need is a way to turn those “filler days” into “killer days” (and no, Walt Disney Corporation, you can’t steal that for your next promotion). Take today: Thursday, June 30th. Nothing special, unless you happen to celebrate Meteor Day, an observance of the 1908 Tunguska Comet Impact in Siberia, Russia… and who doesn’t? However, there are too many interesting things about this date to saddle it with such a pedestrian name. Three great Americans were born on this day: former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson in 1966, actress Christine Taylor in 1971, and swimmer Michael Phelps in 1985. One of these three is a drop-dead, stone cold fox. I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t Mike Tyson. Speaking of Mike Tyson, on this date in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho opened. Speaking of Psycho, in 1994 the US Ice Skating Federation barred Tonya Harding for life. See how special this day is already?

In fact, June 30th is chock-a-block with interesting moments: in 1865, eight conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln were found guilty; in 1914, Mahatma Gandhi’s was arrested for the first time; in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s published her novel Gone With the Wind, which logically led to the 1952 debut of the TV soap opera Guiding Light. In 1974, Soviet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to Canada. (His answer to the hit FOX program So You Think You Can Dance? “Yes. Yes, I do.”)

Unfortunately, some events from this day can’t count because they’re already associated with a holiday. For instance, on June 30, 1962, Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax pitched his first no-hitter against the Mets (Veteran’s Day); on this day in 1936, the federal government approved a 40-hour work week (Labor Day); and on this sunny June day in 1975, Cher married rock star Gregg Allman just three days after divorcing Sonny Bono (April Fool’s Day).

Other out-of-this-world events include the 1995 release of Tom Hanks’ Apollo 13 (with its catchphrase, “Houston, we have a problem”), which occurred 34 years to the day after the Explorer 12 rocket failed to reach Earth orbit. Exactly ten years after that, three Soviet cosmonauts died when their spacecraft depressurized during re-entry. Eleven years later, the doomed space shuttle Challenger rolled off the assembly line for delivery to Edwards Air Force Base. In short, let’s avoid any future June 30th launches.

There were other tragedies on this day as well: In 1520, Montezuma II, the last Aztec emperor, was murdered as Spanish conquistadors fled the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. June 30, 2003, saw the death of comedian Buddy Hackett, a man with whom my wife shared an uncanny (and unfortunate) resemblance as a child. Worst of all, who can forget that dark day on June 30, 1985, when the creator of the Twinkie, James A. Dewar, shed his mortal coil. Coincidently, this was the same day the atomic clock (the world’s official timekeeper) ticked off one extra “leap second” to compensate for the gradual slowing of the Earth’s rotation. If you were having a bad day that day, you could be forgiven for thinking it lasted longer than usual. That is, unless your name was James Dewar, in which case it wouldn’t have mattered.

There are many other important June 30th events in history, but I rarely paid attention in social studies. Yes, I neglected to mention that this date saw the majestic rise of New Kids On The Block (their single “Step by Step” shot to #1 on both the US and UK charts), but some stuff I just have to assume everybody already knows. The important thing is that we can make any day a holiday with a little research and a homemade holiday name.

After careful analysis of all the historic events that happened on this day, there is only one logical name for June 30th on the calendar: Christine Taylor Appreciation Day! (C’mon, you saw this coming a mile away—she was Marsha in the Brady Bunch movies. Duh!)

iPhone’t Do That Again!

While getting gouged at the gas pump during last Thursday’s torrential rains, I noticed an SUV stranded underneath the bridge of the railroad tracks. It seems every railroad trestle in the area overlooks a makeshift pond during heavy rains, but the (crappy) picture I took with my iPhone shows this was no ordinary storm.

Normally I’d be the one tempting fate to see if I could plow through the water in a game of engine roulette, but I just happened stop off to get gas just before the bridge. The cars driving underneath the bridge looked more like amphibious landing craft at Normandy as they floated the last ten or fifteen feet until their tires hit pavement again. As I pondered taking out a second mortgage to pay for topping off my gas tank, I noticed one car struggling to move forward. The rain was coming down in sheets, and the waters were rising quickly. Hoping to remain dry, I silently willed the car across, but it was as if someone had put a matchbox car in an aquariu

I tried to take a picture, thinking maybe the Stratford Star could use it as a tweet, but it was raining so hard I feared frying it. I put it in my pocket to keep it dry. When it became clear the car wasn’t moving and the cavalry wasn’t coming, I sloshed into the pond and made my way over to the car. Before I knew it I was up to my hips in water—if you’ve ever considered jumping into a river created by a flash flood, don’t. It’s exactly the same as jumping into a half-full trash can at the beach and filling the rest with bilge water… only much, much colder and faster.

I got the driver’s attention and she rolled down her window—she was eight months pregnant and didn’t know what to do. She said she’d just called the fire department, which I thought was a wise thing to do. Knowing I have karmic debts to pay, I had her turn off the car and put it in neutral so I could push her out. This is not a wise thing to do. Eventually someone else came in to help and we managed to get her clear just as the fire trucks arrived. In other words, if I had done the smart thing (who knows what electrical wires could fall in the water and fry me like bacon… or an iPhone) and waited for them to help, I wouldn’t have waded into toxic water with my wallet and iPhone in my pocket. I wouldn’t have had to bury my phone in a bowl of rice in a desperate attempt to keep it from burning out, and it wouldn’t smell like a chocolate cigarette even a week later.

The Flowers of Graduation

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on June 16, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

Tis the season for high school reunions—I can tell by the sheer number of messages sprayed onto car windows with shaving cream and cake frosting. I need to see through my windows as I drive, however, so permit me to put my thoughts on paper instead.

To Graduating Students: Congratulations! As you stand in line to get your diploma, take a moment to remember that first frightened walk to your kindergarten seat so many years ago. How did you end up here, a refugee from an Elton John video, dressed in a frumpy gown and funny hat as you fuss over a tassel? You’ve come a long way, baby. Now, the bad news: you haven’t really learned anything important yet. High school teaches you how to learn, but the real world doesn’t care about the area of an isosceles triangle. Instead, now you’ll be expected to be open enough to learn what really matters. I like how Cambridge University puts this in perspective, referring to its graduation day as General Admission. That degree you just received is a ticket, nothing more. Which show you go to, and how much you enjoy it, is up to you. Choose wisely.

If you’d allow me to offer a bit of advice about handling this big day, I’d ask you to thank the family and friends that helped you get to this point.  Too often we wait for important occasions to show our full appreciation to the ones we love, then forget to do so amid the distractions of the day. It’s a sad reality that twelve years of full-time academic study for adolescents remains unattainable for most. Your family made sacrifices to provide you this opportunity; it’s their day, too.  That means that, yes, you have to kiss Aunt Marge. It ain’t pretty, but all of us had to do it. Besides, she doesn’t give you the card with the check inside until you do.

To Parents of Graduating Students: Congratulations! Now that he’s graduating, you’re “this close” to turning Timmy’s bedroom into a yoga gym. Before you send him off to college, though, you have to shepherd him through the events surrounding the commencement. Remember that part I wrote earlier about how graduating students should remember that it’s their family’s big day, too? Forget that. This is their day, even if you have relatives and friends coming from all over the country and you’re still scrounging for additional tickets to the ceremony. Bite your tongue when your kids say that today will be the most important day of their lives; let them bemoan that this will be the last time they’ll be with all their friends as a group again. Let them enjoy their pre-nostalgia with whatever hysterics they can muster.

Don’t worry that your kids will read this and neglect the advice I gave them earlier about thanking you: I find that students won’t read anything addressed specifically to their parents unless they’re worried about getting to the mailbox first around report card time. Still, give them a break and stop Aunt Marge before she gets to her third martini.

To the Community: Congratulations! As you pick up the newspapers in the coming days, take a moment to leaf through the pages dedicated to these high school graduation ceremonies. This is where your tax money went. Notice the sense of accomplishment on those smiling faces, the sense of hope and optimism that pervades the crowd. Look into the eyes of your future doctors, lawyers, teachers, and firefighters—your future taxpayers. There was a time when we questioned the need for such large amounts of money to be spent on their education, when we discussed cutting programs and services that we hoped would not affect them too much. We now see the flower of our efforts to maintain our budgets; like the Treasury bond given as a graduation gift, our investment has matured and stands to offer an excellent return.

Whether you have children in the school system or not, these are your kids. They are your neighbors, and soon you’ll be going to them to fix your car, your taxes, or your elevated blood pressure. These graduations represent a renewed commitment to opening the doors of opportunity to those better suited to solve the messes we’ve made. It’s obvious we adults don’t have all the answers. Some of these graduates might. After all, they know the dates of the War of Portuguese Succession, how to use the quadratic formula to determine the value of x, and how to label all the parts of a bacterium cell. Maybe they can rise above petty political allegiances and finally get us to work together for the common good. With hundreds graduating in the coming weeks alone, I like our odds.

As the Nelson Mandela once wrote, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” I truly believe the young men and women who will be throwing their hats into the air this week will accomplish great things. To my godson, Kevin, and all the graduates of the Class of 2011, I offer my heartiest congratulations… now, get to work! My 401k isn’t going to fix itself.

An Open Letter to My Neighbors

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on June 2, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

I love my neighbors, at least the ones who live close enough to walk over and egg my house if they don’t like this piece. It’s the rest of you I need to speak with, so I’ll address you individually. After all, one of the advantages of having one’s own column is the ability to save on stamps.

To the guy who keeps revving his motorcycle engine at 2:30 in the morning: You’re aware of the function of a muffler, right? More than mere decoration, it’s designed to significantly reduce the sound of your exhaust. I’m not supposed to feel in my chest how well you’ve cleaned your carburetor each time you pass my window. More importantly, you were supposed to get over needless revving when you outgrew your Big Wheel. If you still feel the need to announce your presence to those of us silly enough to sleep at these hours, try putting baseball cards in the spokes of your wheels. Or cure cancer. Either way.

To the idiot who cuts through parking lots rather than waiting for the light to change: I secretly hope someone backs into you as you race through those parked cars to save that extra 60 seconds. I don’t want anyone injured, I just want your car badly dented. I know that’s horrible. I’m sorry.

To the people who still throw trash out their car windows: Is your life so tightly scheduled that you can’t hold on to that bag of Fritos long enough to find a trash can? This isn’t the Space Station—we have regular trash pickup each week, and it’s already paid for in our taxes. Did you never see the crying Native American commercials?

To the woman who jumps in front of me on the platform just before the train comes to a full stop in order to be the first one inside: Look, it’s a guessing game to stand in exactly the right spot on the platform so that the doors are directly in front of you when the train comes to a halt. We all know the rules. You guessed wrong. You can’t cheat and walk in front of the winners, the ones who spend months estimating the diminishing velocity and distance of a moving target. If you want to be first, earn it—like we did. I’m not afraid to step on your open-toed shoe.

To the guy who drives around in the Ford Crown Victoria with the standard-issue search light still bolted to the driver’s side door: Do you notice how traffic slows to a crawl wherever you go? Are you trying to give us a heart attack every time we notice you in our rear view mirrors, or is driving around in an unmarked police car just your way of fulfilling a fantasy? Unless you’re leading a search party for a missing child, you can lose the search light. And the Ford Crown Victoria. Heck, maybe you should just take the bus.

To the idiot who cuts through parking lots rather than waiting for the light to change: I know I said I was sorry earlier, but I lied. Sorry.

To the teenagers who walk across busy traffic lanes as if life was a game of “Frogger”: You should know I was always terrible at “Frogger.” That poor thing never made it past the second lane before painting the road green under the tire of an oncoming car. I wouldn’t place so much blind faith in my evasive driving skills if I were you—maybe the crosswalk isn’t such a bad idea

To the whacko who keeps ruining the barbecue by foaming at the mouth about how one party in town is determined to ruin us all: You, my friend, are part of the problem. Have a seat. Eat some cheese. Read some poetry. As my mom would say, “Have a nice bm.” Let the rest of your neighbors try to talk things out like adults.

To the woman who texts while driving, constantly slamming on the brakes just before rear-ending the car in front of her: I acknowledge how important you are—I can tell by that 1987 Dodge Caravan you’re driving. However, the rest of us have something to live for—please put off that last “OMG LOL” until you pull out in front of the idiot who cuts through parking lots rather than waiting for the light to change. You two deserve each other.