Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Back Pages: School Days, and This Old Man..

My Back Pages: School Days, and This Old Man..:    Dedicated to the Memory of Marvin Bookbinder: A dedicated educator, and a really decent, caring man. Mr. Bookbinder, I'm so sorry t...

School Days, and This Old Man..

   Dedicated to the Memory of Marvin Bookbinder: A dedicated educator, and a really decent, caring man. Mr. Bookbinder, I'm so sorry that I failed you 


I have to admit, I love doing bitstrips; those little cartoons on facebook that let you make your avatar for them and adjust the situations and the captions to suit yourself. They give you the basic cartoon, you finish it. I like to draw on my life, and usually kid my wife in the process. Usually, I make myself the butt of her (fictional) biting and sarcastic wit. 
 Yesterday, I found one that actually almost fit what happened to me in real life, and it caused a great deal of controversy and facebook talk. Here's the cartoon:

                                                                                                                   
Now, I had no intention of putting down guidance councilors, or teachers, or the school system. I have nothing but the utmost respect for educators and all that they try to do. Despite all the restrictions put on them by the system and all the politicians who just don't seem to understand that you must let the teachers teach. Despite all the modern parents who take issue when a teacher tries to discipline a child, or who blame the teacher when a child, who just is incorrigible (as I was), refuses to participate; they do the best that they can under the circumstances. Most are dedicated to educating students. Most face issues every day which place roadblocks in the path of education; but still they try. I know several, and one retired teacher is also a very dear friend from my very early days. But I digress.
  What I want to say is this: Yes, this did happen to me, but I was the worst possible student. Hell, I don't even think that the title 'Student' could be applied to me. You have to be someone who studied to have been a student, and I definitely did not! I was okay in elementary school, although my mind would drift off in the hours after lunch; but when I got to Junior High School, my long slide into scholarly oblivion started. There was something wrong. Something just would not let me concentrate in school, and would not let me do homework at home. Looking back from the distance of 50+ years, I think now that I must have been ADD or ADHD, but, in those days, no one even had a clue about these things. I frustrated my teachers, my parents, and anyone who ever tried to help me. I ultimately frustrated myself. It was tough being me, because I was lost in a dream world and kind of drifted along for the longest time. 
  It's not that I was stupid. From what they told me back then, I tested at a 132 IQ. What that means today, I have no idea. Some of my teachers tried to help me. Mrs. Helfrich, an English Teacher that I had in the eighth grade, comes to mind. Some did their best to humiliate me every chance that they got. Mrs. Bryant, who taught something called CORE back in those days (a two class combination of English and Social Studies which lasted one year, I think), absolutely hated me. As did Miss Schotten, my Algebra teacher. It was okay... I hated them right back.  Despite this, and being left back for failing to do well in seventh grade, I managed to get through Junior High School and graduated to High School. Unfortunately, I was doomed. The confusion of this large school, and the demanding nature of the classes (they insisted on putting me in College Prep, based on my achievement test scores) drove me out. I got halfway through the tenth grade, and quit, much to the dismay of both of my parents. 
  For a while, I drifted from menial job to menial job. Then, I was contacted by a very dedicated and sincere man, Marvin Bookbinder, who was in charge of something called Project re-entry. This was an attempt to get dropouts back in school to finish, and perhaps go on to college. This was a very kind and caring man, and the more I said no, the more he pressed me to try again. He came to my home several times to talk to me. I finally relented and said that I would give it a try.
  The following school year, I re-entered the tenth grade, taking some eleventh grade classes along with it. I did mediocre work, although my English teacher said that I had some potential as a writer. I made it through the tenth grade by the skin of my teeth and Summer School. The following year, I soon returned to my old habits. I would arrive at the school, late, and sign in. This covered me for the day. Mostly, I just would hang out, and by then, I had my own car. I soon had the truant officer after me, and managed to stay ahead of him. I would also sneak the notifications from the school out of the mail, before my mother or father could read them. Things finally came to a head when I was rounded up at the diner one day, and brought back to the school. I got into a shouting match with the gym teacher/football coach and the principal, and quit again.. this time, it was for good. 
 I worked full time for a year, then, in 1966, I joined the Marines. After basic training, and after my schooling as an aviation ordnance man, I reported to my first permanent duty station. The first thing that I was told was that I WOULD get a high school diploma. I took the GED and scored in the 98 percentile. I somehow, had learned enough to get a diploma, despite all of my worst efforts.
  The reason that I am writing this is that I want people to know that there are children out there that struggle with themselves just to make it through the day. Kids like I was cannot be threatened or punished into doing well in school. Some children can. I could not. As I've said, I probably had ADD or ADHD. The Marine Corps didn't give you the luxury of having such things. Civilian life did. Today, they have drugs and therapies that help these children, if they are diagnosed in time. I've heard some parents say that they would never allow their children to be drugged. All I can say to them is that, if I had had the opportunity to be treated, perhaps I would have been a writer instead of a telephone man. I will never know. Not that I regret my life: I don't. All things that we do lead to what we become in the end. I'm not rich, but I am satisfied.  
 So, if you see a child struggling, don't blame the teachers. If you're the parents, don't blame yourselves. Just see what you can do to get the child help.

  This is my story. I needed to write it down, for once and for all. I've tried to be as truthful as possible. My problems were mine alone, in those days, and there was on one to blame but myself.
 John Zaffino Kent Lakes, NY
 March 25, 2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Back Pages: Solving Problems, and Mindset Needed

My Back Pages: Solving Problems, and Mindset Needed: While lying in bed this morning, sometime around 04:00 AM, I started thinking about the state of things in America and the rest of the wor...

Solving Problems, and Mindset Needed

While lying in bed this morning, sometime around 04:00 AM, I started thinking about the state of things in America and the rest of the world and it occurred to me that the problem is that we have stagnated. We seem to be constantly at odds with one another about what direction to go in, and instead of moving, we just sit with our wheels spinning. In fact, our wheels no longer even spin because we are so mired in the morass of one ideology versus another. While our supplies of fuel continually dwindle, nothing has been done in any significant way to either replace or supplement the fuels that we have. Our current demands burn up supplies with abandon, and while we are not in a crisis mode yet, make no mistake about it, we one day will be. What to do, what to do?
  I must ask: Where are the movers and shakers today that will lead us from this darkness into a new era of light? Where are the voices inspiring the young men and women of today to take chances and search for answers to this and so many other problems that plague the modern world? Where are the Bold Thinkers, the Visionaries who have a clear idea what direction we ought to go in? Who will lead us with brilliant words and bold new ideas? Certainly none of the current 'Leaders'. You don't make discoveries by being conservative. If people like Lindbergh were conservative in their visions, we would still be sailing ships to get from one continent to another instead of flying aircraft. If not for the bold sacrifices of people like Amelia Earhart, we would still think that we could not fly around the world, and that women don't belong in the pilot's seat. If not for Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, a large part of our fellow Americans would still be living under the American version of apartheid. We did not stop going into space because of the shuttle disasters. We suspended them the shuttles for a while, but inevitably continued onward in upward. We did it because the human condition is not to be conservative. It is to continually push the envelope. To face each challenge and find ways to meet it and win. We, as a people, as a race called human, need to find the answers to these things that tax our existence and we need visionary leaders to show the way. We are going to experience failures. Anything worth doing is a risk. Pointing fingers at it and saying "See? What did we tell you? Look at the money lost on this project!" does nothing but set the quest for answers back even further. This is what nay-sayers do. This is what people either without vision, or another agenda do. Everything worth doing comes with a risk. It the nature of our existence.

 Things don't get done by saying that they are too expensive, and that we shouldn't try. Things don't get done by ignoring them and saying to the people that you represent "Don't worry, someone else will find a way to fix it." Things get done by taking bold actions. Standing on the steps of the Capital with a rifle in your hand is not the way. Instilling fears that the government is going to take away the peoples right to bear arms, while you are chipping away at the right to privacy and freedoms of religion and speech, are not getting it done. We have an infrastructure that is crumbling. Roads, bridges, railways systems, are all falling apart... and very little is being done about it. Fossil fuels are getting increasingly difficult to bring to the surface. Fracking, in some cases, causes the ground water to be infused with natural gas; and still, no one has found an answer. These problems must be solved, if we are to continue on as an advanced civilization. Simply saying 'God will provide' won't do it either. If God is out there, he has provided. He has given humankind the brain that can work out complex problems. Nothing will be handed to us. It is up to us to find the answers ourselves.
 I'm an old man, and these are my conclusions after much thought over years and years of seeking answers. My words will only be read by a few people, but if this rings a bell with others, then perhaps they will write something, and perhaps someone respected and inspiring will take up the cause. My concern is for the my grandchildren and the society that they will have to live in. I am truly worried, but I am hopeful that the call will be heard.

John Zaffino March 23, 2014
Kent Lakes, NY

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Back Pages: The Old Man and the Hat(s)

My Back Pages: The Old Man and the Hat(s): When I was a boy, my friends and I were ambiguous about hats. The hats that our mothers insisted that we wear on cold Winter days had very...

The Old Man and the Hat(s)

When I was a boy, my friends and I were ambiguous about hats. The hats that our mothers insisted that we wear on cold Winter days had very little to do with fashion or style. Rather, they were supposed to keep our heads warm and keep our ears from getting frost-bitten. If you know anyone who has pictures from these days in the '50s and early '60s, you know exactly what I am talking about. As we grew older, we discovered hats with what we thought was style: usually a short brimmed Fedora with a feather. Truth be known, we looked ridiculous, but we thought we were very cool! 
  I remember the wide brimmed hats that my father and my uncles wore in the '50s. They were always pulled down over the forehead, and usually worn with a dark overcoat, giving them all the look of gangsters out of a Cagney movie. To me, though, they looked funny. 
 Politicians of the day all wore hats: Ike, Truman... even Lyndon Johnson, although by the time he became President, Fedoras, Homburgs and the like had fallen out of favor, thanks to our young President with the shock of unruly brown hair: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy hated anything on his head, and rarely wore a hat, preferring to go bare-headed. This devastated the mens hat industry for decades.
 When I went into the Marine Corps, I was required to wear a hat anytime that I was outdoors. They were not very stylish, and I hated them. Invariably, they gave me a headache because they always seemed to be too tight. The day that I was released from active duty in 1970, I promptly removed my cover (Marine Corps for 'Hat') and walked down the street of my final base, bare-headed at last. Unfortunately for me, a shave tail Lieutenant was driving by. He stopped and ordered me to put my cover back on. I explained that I had just been released, and he told me that I was not released until I was off of the base. I replaced the cover, and he drove off. As soon as he was out of sight, I removed it again. Suddenly, there he was again! The SOB had driven around the block and told me to put it on and leave on, or the only place I would be going would be the brig. I put it on.
 After I became a civilian again, I seldom wore a hat... they just didn't look good on me. The style in the '70s and '80s was usually just a ball cap. My head is just too wide for these caps, and I always looked like an escapee from somewhere. Aside from the ball caps, the styles ran to those big caps that looked like the old ice bags that people used to put on their heads for headaches, and the Walt Frazier 'Pimp Hats', which looked sharp, but I never thought that I could pull off.
 In the '90s, I would wear those Newsboy  type caps, turned backwards, so that they looked kind of like a beret. Still, I always thought back to those wide brimmed hats that my father's generation wore. Oh, I tried other looks: Western hats, which looked silly on a guy who lived in the Northeast and talked in the staccato, clipped way of someone from the NYC area. Woolen ski caps always mad me look either like a potential serial killer, or bank robber. None of these worked for me, and I always felt self-conscious wearing them. I even occasionally wore a ball type cap turned backward, catcher style. 
 I had decided in the middle of the last decade to shave my head, I needed something to keep my head warm on those frigid days, and to keep the sun off once I had enough. I couldn't, after all, fry the rapidly diminishing brain cells that we old men find so precious. 
 My wife, Sheryl, had always encouraged me to wear an old style Fedora, or Panama hat. She said that they looked good on me. So when I recently found a hat at, of all places, Cracker Barrel, I decided to give it a try. To my amazement, people started complimenting the hat and how I looked in it. I had to grudgingly admit that I do not look bad in a hat anymore. Maybe it has something to do with being older. Maybe it's because I no longer feel uncomfortable wearing one, or maybe because it makes my wife happy... I don't know. I have given in and gone to a larger size, so I don't get the headaches anymore. Recently, I bought a black felt fedora, with a little bit of a Western look to it, and I am contemplating a lighter color. It seems that, things that seemed not right for us when we were younger, things that we poked fun at and swore we would never wear or do, tend to become comfortable for us as we grow older. It's OK to change your mind.

  I wrote this blog with the encouragement of my good friend, Patty Ann Smith Sparano.  She saw the picture of me in the hat and said that I was "Very Ernest Hemingway-ish" in the hat. I told her that I wished that I had one tenth his talent. So, she suggested that I write a blog showing how our perceptions and tastes change as we mature, how things that we once thought were not cool, turn in to things that we become comfortable with as we age. Patty, you deserve the credit for the inspiration, and at least half for the concept. Thank you, my friend.
 So, I will put on my hat and go forth. Life just gets curiouser as we age!
John Zaffino  (With a tip of the hat to Patty Ann Smith Sparano)
Kent Lakes, New York March 15, 2014 ( The Ides Of March!)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My Back Pages: Aging.... Gracefully?

My Back Pages: Aging.... Gracefully?: I was reading an article on line the other day and came across a paragraph that focused on 'Baby Boomers' (I hate that title), and i...

Aging.... Gracefully?

I was reading an article on line the other day and came across a paragraph that focused on 'Baby Boomers' (I hate that title), and it said that some of us were elderly. Curious, I looked up 'Elderly' to find out at what age one becomes elderly, and was shocked to find that I passed that milestone two years ago!  How could this be? My mind is still sharp, even if my eyes aren't. My wit is nimble, even if my body isn't. This just could not be true, I told myself. So, I searched several more times, and each time came back with the same result.... I'm elderly. I was stunned. Then, I started to think about aging, and what we have been led to believe we were going to be in for, as opposed to the truth. My conclusion is that we have been led down the garden path to smell the roses, and instead have become lost in the woods.

  We have been told all of our lives that we will grow old gracefully. Ha! Let me tell you, for most of us, there is nothing graceful about it. Instead, we stumble, hobble, and drag ourselves from doctor to doctor, from test to test in an endless circle. It's like going into a maze that has benches for resting, but no actual way out. Some of us take in more pills than food in a day. We are bombarded by commercials touting the latest wonder drug that may either help you, or kill you with the side effects. They tell you to inform your doctor if you have this or that condition. Well, if I have to tell my doctor what the hell is wrong with me, what is it, exactly that I am paying him for? Why in the hell would I take a pill that comes with the caveat that 'In some cases, side effects, including internal bleeding, stroke, and death have occurred'? Oh, yeah, give me some of that stuff! And the government wants to protect me from marijuana? Oh, boy. 
 Other commercials show happy people in their 60s and 70s playing golf, running and doing all kinds of very active things. Then, they try to sell you this med or that rub that will make your arthritis disappear! Right! I have arthritis in my hands, my back, my neck and my knees. I have two blown out rotator cuffs. No rub is making that go away, and I am not taking those pain killers. They just make me dopey, and I'm dopey enough already. 
 Listen, I'm not complaining about heading off into the sunset... we all do it. It is natures way of improving the world. I just needed to vent about the WAY that we head off. Doctors do the best that they can but, lets face it, they are still working in an inexact science. We don't call what they do a 'Practice' for nothing. I have the best doctors in the world, and my Primary Care Physician (Who the hell comes up with these ideas to change the names of what a person is or does?) is not only my doctor, but my friend of thirty years. It's just that the human existence is still a mystery to them as well.
  Medical problems is just the half of it. They didn't warn us that, at some point, our children start look at us like we've either lost our minds, or just don't know what we are talking about. You all know what I am talking about: The eye roll when they think that you are not looking. The glazed over look that comes over their faces when you start to tell about something from your past and they think that they've (a)heard it before, or (b)are not really interested in what you have to say. I remember doing this to my own father a few times, so I want to say now that I was callous and very wrong to do so. I'm sure that he knew what I was doing, and it hurt him. We seem to lose some respect as the years continue to speed on by. People look at us differently, and they treat us differently. 'Oh, don't pay any attention them, they're old and grouchy!' Yeah, well we are grouchy for a good reason. I try not to let the disrespect that I get from some color my opinion of all. For the most part, I get what I give, and that's a good thing.
  The last thing that I have to say is I hate the loss of dignity that comes with advanced age. I watched my aunts decline from smart, vibrant women to almost childlike people in a matter of a few years. The really sad part is that so many treated them like children.... not that they were mean to them... they weren't. It's just that they talked to them as one would talk to a child. It made me angry, at times. 
 When my Aunt Mary had to go into a nursing home for rehabilitation after getting stents place in her coronary arteries, the staff talked to her like she was a four year old. On one occasion, I brought her some homemade escarole and meatball soup. She didn't go to the dining room that day, and the floor supervisor came in and started berating her for not coming to lunch. I lost it and told her that I had brought her some food from home, and that she was not to talk like that to her ever again! This was an excellent nursing home and was top rated, but still, they treated her like a child. She was 91 at the time. I wish that she had a more peaceful last few years.
  Well, I think that I have gotten this out of my system for the time being. Growing old gracefully has certainly not been my experience, but life is seldom what we thought it would be. It's full of surprises, good and bad, but that's what makes it interesting. I will continue to do whatever my team of doctors tells me,  as one of my good friends has urged me to do. I just needed to get this off of my chest. I will, of course, write my opinions from time to time, for better or for worse. If I stir things up a little, so be it, as long as I can make what I write interesting, and make some people think about what I have to say.
 Life has been an adventure... unpleasant at times, but good, overall. I would not change even the bad times, because out of most of them came good. I leave you, as I always do, wishing Peace and Love for all. Thanks for listening.

John Zaffino March 1, 2014
Kent Lakes, NY