Saturday, April 25, 2015

Scary First Haircut - a Short Story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

cut4 As I neared my 5th birthday, my hair had grown wild and untouched by human hands – except for my mother brushing it affectionately. After a summer of sun, beach, and water, I entered the first week of September blissfully unaware that something unexpected awaited me.

“He can’t go into Kindergarten looking like that,” Dad said. 

“Oh, dear,” Mom said, “but he's so cute.”

“He looks like a hippy,” Dad said.

I watched my favorite TV show, and as Bugs Bunny said, “What’s up Doc?” I wondered what a hippy was and what that had to do with me.


 *

Late on Saturday afternoon my father’s father came into the kitchen. “Ready for the old trim,” he said.

Suddenly the two of them were heading down into the dark abyss of the basement. I never went down there because I assumed that trolls, witches, and ghosts patrolled it, and I wanted nothing to do with that place.

As I plopped down and played with my G.I. Joes, I heard my father yell, “Vinny, come down here!” 

“Me?” I thought. “I must be imagining things.” 

“Vincent, get down here now!” Dad yelled again.

Mom came into the living room drying her hands on a dishtowel. “Vinny, sweetheart, please go down by Daddy.”

“I never go down there,” I said.

“You’re starting school next week, so Daddy has to get you ready. Your teacher’s going to be Sister Regina, and she sent a letter home telling us how you are supposed to look.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, you need to wear a uniform, get special shoes, and you need a haircut.”

Cut3Mom led me to the cellar stairs. As I stared down them I heard banging and the muffled voices of Pop and Dad talking. I tried to turn back and looked up at Mom; she was crying. I never saw Mom cry except when she and Nana were watching their soap operas.

I started down the stairs slowly, the old wood creaking as I took each step. As I got to the bottom I stared ahead at Pop sitting on a chair with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Dad had some kind of machine and he ran it along the back of Pop’s head. It made an awful noise like an electronic insect gnawing at Pop’s hair.

Looking back up the stairs, I noticed Mom shutting and bolting the door. Doom obviously awaited me. I turned and walked toward them. Pop had his head down and Dad took something else from the table and started to scratch it on the back of Pop’s neck. “Hey, watch it, Vince!”

“Sorry, Pop,” Dad said.

Cut2I slowly went over to the table and saw all these assorted instruments; I recognized some things as different kinds of scissors but the other stuff looked unusual and like it could hurt someone. Dad noticed me and said, “Take a seat, Pal. I just have to finish up with Pop.”

I watched as he took a comb and a pair of scissors and clipped around Pop’s ears. “Hey! Quit nicking me!” Pop said.

“Sorry, Pop,” Dad said.

I had no idea my father gave haircuts. We used to pass the barber shop on the corner every morning, and Dad would say that was where he got a haircut. Now I knew that Dad, who was a New York City cop, also could be a barber. I knew he fancied himself a doctor – he had pulled enough splinters out of me with his implements and stinging rubbing alcohol. He also thought he was a dentist, having the thing with a little mirror on it and other metal tools that he used to probe my mouth. I figured Dad could do just about anything.

Pop stood up; Dad shook the gray hairs off the sheet and stared at me. “You’re next, Pal.”

I went to the chair, sat down, and felt the sheet coming around me like I was getting tied up. He secured the top part around my neck, and it was very tight and caused me to cough. Dad loosened it a bit and said, “Sorry, Pal.”

Pop started up the steps, knocked twice on the door, and Mom unbolted it. I closed my eyes and thought, “This was all part of a plan.”

I stared ahead and realized that there was a mirror above the shelf on the basement wall. I could actually see myself ready to be tortured. Dad reached over to the table and brought a pair of scissors and a comb close to my head. I watched as he combed my hair forward so that it covered my eyes. Snip-snip-snip and suddenly that hair was gone and I could see again.

Cut1I felt the sweat running down my back as he combed my hair back, put those things down, and brought that electric contraption up to my temple. As he turned it on it reminded me of that terrible sound I heard in the dentist’s office, but this was right next to my ear. I shut my eyes and didn’t open them again until Dad finished his work.

“Okay, Vinny, all done,” Dad said, taking the sheet off me and shaking all my dark hair from it onto the basement floor next to Pop’s gray hair.

I stood up shakily and touched my head; my hair felt like little needles against my palm. I looked in the mirror and saw most of what had been on my head gone. “Why’d you cut off so much, Dad?” I asked.

“It’s called a crewcut, Pal.” I started up the stairs and looked over the banister. Dad took a broom and began sweeping up the hair on the floor.

When I walked into the kitchen, Mom started crying again, fell down on her knees, and kissed my cheeks. “I’m sorry, my boy.”

I didn’t like seeing my Mom cry and said, “It’s okay, Mom. I’m fine,” and I was; I had survived my first haircut.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Common Core Wars – Parents Opting Out of Testing Can Change Education for the Better

First appreared on Blogcritics.

opt 2 Parents across New York State and other parts of the country are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. This anger stems from school districts ramming testing linked to the infamous Common Core Standards down their children’s throats, which takes an enormous amount of class time away from instruction.

There is also the issue here in New York of connecting the results of said testing to teachers’ evaluations. Parents and teachers have always represented the most important partnership in education – working together they can form the crucial bond that will make a child’s scholastic experience a success. In this case both parents and teachers find themselves even more drawn to being on the same team – for the sake of the children and the teachers’ careers.

All over the United States parents are opting out of standardized student testing. Here in New York State alone, it is estimated that over 150,000 students did not take last week’s state ELA exams (given in grades 3-8). This week the state math exams begin, and the forecast is that the number mentioned above could double or even triple based on dissatisfied parents reacting to the situation at schools across the state.

What is happening here? Is it a "mass act of civil disobedience" as NY Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez labels it? Or is there even something deeper happening here? Could it be that parents are finally realizing their rights in the education equation and are standing up to the bullies in school district offices and state education departments? As a parent and educator, I am leaning toward the latter as the most reasonable and logical explanation.

My children are not in grades that require state testing in their school, but if they were I would definitely “opt out” on their behalf. Besides the inadequate preparation for poorly constructed tests being the reason, my main concern (and I know many other parents agree) is the inordinate level of test anxiety that these assessments create. The “high stakes” atmosphere of teachers being pressured to proctor exams on which they know there students will do poorly, coupled with the realization that the results will be used in their evaluations, creates a pressure cooker for kids. These exams do not provide teachable moments but instead day-upon-day of nervousness and despair.

opt 3As for the exams themselves, these ludicrous instruments set up at least 70% or more of the students to fail (judging by the results here in New York). What authority charged with the best interests of their students would dare to administer such testing?

There is also all the test prep time, the professional development for teachers (inadequate at best but still requiring them to be out of their classrooms), and then even more time for the tests to be marked (again taking teachers out of the classroom). Then, to rub salt into the wounds, these same teachers who know they have not been properly prepared for the Common Core, are asked to prepare the students for exams that they know they are not ready to take. To add insult to injury here in New York, Governor Cuomo and his minions have then said that the results on these exams will be used as part of end of the year teacher evaluations.

Any rational person would take a step back and say, “This is absurd,” but this has always been the plan of Cuomo (and his partner in crime former New York City Mayor Bloomberg), to try to break the teachers’ unions, to fracture teacher tenure, and to support a new charter-school type of mentality that basically means that teachers will be paid off an established salary scale and have little or no job security.

Parents are revolting in mass demonstrations because they are smart and they know who has the best interests of their children in mind (the teachers). Today’s parents have realized that they are the taxpayers – the ones who are funding what these districts and state education departments are doing. Why should they sit back and allow a bunch of bureaucrats to sabotage education by basically condemning children to a school year of teachers teaching to the test? Thankfully, parents and teachers are forging an alliance to take back education, which in essence means eliminating most or all of these standardized tests in favor of something really radical – a day devoted to actual teaching!

opt 1Teachers have a right to be worried – the pernicious plan put forth places them in the crosshairs and they are realizing that they have to fight back. Teachers’ unions are aligning themselves for a push back against the testing, and they are getting overwhelming support from parents who not only value their professionalism but believe they have a right to job security.

Can you imagine any major company creating something they know would fail most consumers? Let’s say a company makes a product that they realize will not work 70% of the time; however, the profits are so large that they put it out there anyway. They also charge their suppliers and store owners to push the defective product and, if they do not, their jobs will be on the line. Well, this is what has happened with standardized testing – especially exams linked to the Common Core – it is a failure and yet it continues to be pushed upon our children.

opt 4Proponents of the Common Core and the testing linked to it will tell you a different tale, but that is because this is BIG business. Testing costs are astronomical, and districts that have signed multi-year contracts with companies are stuck with a faulty product and thus shove it down the throats of their students, teachers, and parents. This is as bad as a doctor who knows a drug does more harm than good but, because of his hospital’s relationship with a pharmaceutical giant, prescribes the drug for patients anyway.

It is reassuring to see so many parents standing up to their districts and education departments. If Gonzalez is right and this is a “movement,” then we have to beat the drum and continue to press forward. We must to get to the point that every child’s parents in every school across the country joins the “opt out” group. This will show where the real power lies in education – the parents!

There have also been subtle threats from district leaders. They say that if parents push to opt-out that the Federal government will withhold funding from school districts. This is another attempt at bullying, but those in elected office should reconsider hurting students by punishing schools with less funding because they didn’t get things to go their way. Parents also hold the power of the vote, and any politician who would advocate withholding funds from schools certainly will feel the pain the next time parents go into the voting booth.

opt 5Standardized testing is starting to look like Humpty Dumpty – the big fall is imminent, and all the testing companies’ horses and all their men won’t be able to put it back together again. When that happens education will return to a place where reading, writing, and arithmetic are more important than expensive testing contracts that only line the pockets of executives who have no idea nor care what happens in a classroom.

For now parents have been exercising their right to opt out of standardized testing in growing numbers, and this trend is not going away. With even more opt outs predicted this week, the hope is that parents will continue taking back the essence of education from people who have obviously forgotten the golden rule – teachers are supposed to teach subject matter not to a test. We are moving in the right direction now, but we need this to be the start of a continuing effort to let school districts and education departments know that inevitable change is coming.

As for teachers, this movement by parents should be an affirmation of their efforts and for them to continue doing what they best – teach! Parents and teachers must continue to unite; they have nothing to lose but their standardized testing chains.

Photo credits: AP, Syracuse.com, genius.com

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mad Men – Don Draper’s “Death” Is Preordained

First appeared in Blogcritics.

mad 1 There is always a good deal of talk as a dramatic series reaches its end about who is going to survive, especially the main protagonist. Think The Sopranos, 24, Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Shield for good examples – and only Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had enough moxie to pull the plug on Walter White.

The discussion now continues regarding Mad Men and its conflicted lead Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with the watercooler talk firmly on the “Don will die” side. This conversation is ludicrous because people are missing the truth – Don Draper is already dead.

Now, we can take that literally because Don Draper – the real Don Draper – is actually long dead because Lieutenant Donald Draper died during the Korean War. The man we know as Don is actually Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who dies giving birth to him. Having been brought up in a house of ill repute, Dick has no trouble switching dog tags with Draper after he is killed in a battle that also wounds Dick. When Dick returns home as Draper, he has been awarded the Purple Heart.

Fans of the show know that Don is no war hero – but all of this hangs around his neck like an albatross. The slick Don Draper we meet is a creation of circumstance, timing, and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who gets into a drunken stupor with Don and forgets that he never offered him a job. Don takes every opportunity as we can see from these actions and this propels him to the spot where he is now – able to write a $1 million check to second wife Megan (Jessica ParĂ©) as a way of settling their divorce amicably.

mad 4Getting back to the guy we know as Don now, there is definite evidence that he is going to “die” but not in the way everyone may be thinking. Don’s journey has been a long and excruciating one – with much of the turmoil of his own doing – and as the pieces keep crumbling all around him, that “falling man” from the opening credits is surely imagined as Don taking the plunge like a despondent stockbroker jumping after the crash in 1929.

My thinking is that the end of the 1960s has driven a definitive nail into Draper’s coffin. That was his decade to shine; and the Don Draper we know – buttoned down suit, slicked back hair, shiny shoes – is just not meant for the 70s. When he leaves Betty (January Jones) and her family in the last episode, he realizes not only what he is missing but what he has lost. The man who had no family life growing up has nothing now.

mad 2This brings us to Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) – a waitress Don sees in a diner one night who reminds him of a lost love. Don doesn’t usually pursue women who work outside of his realm of high-stakes advertising, but she intrigues him enough that they have a sordid back alley tryst and then later he brings her home. On the elevator in his apartment building, old flame Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) and her doctor husband meet them and Don has an uncomfortable moment of past and present lovers colliding – but Sylvia acts as if Diana is not even there. Her ignorance is either bliss or defines what Don means in her life now – nothing!

Unlike other women, Diana ends things with Don and this defies the logic of his life – women don’t leave Don Draper. Don, who famously once said, “It’s over when I say it’s over” sadly learns the fat lady has sung without even realizing it. When he returns home to his apartment, he discovers Megan and her mother (Julia Ormond) have cleaned out the place. He stares at the vacant space incredulously, rooms as empty as his life has become.

My theory as we move forward is that Don is going to realize that he can no longer live the lie that he has created. All of his machinations have left him alone and broken, and there aren’t enough cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and willing women to assuage that internal pain that is tearing him apart. Don hates his life just as much as other people despise him. He is not loved; he is no one’s friend, and there is no hope for Don Draper in the world that he has established.

So Don Draper will indeed die in the series finale – and it will be of his own doing. No, Don’s not going to fall off the building as in the opening credits, but he will shed that sleazy Draper skin that has become thickened, hardened, and inured to life’s true pleasures. Don will go back to being Dick Whitman, fur salesman, used car salesman, and basically nobody.

Only by throwing away all Don has accomplished can Dick ever be free. Dick never earned that Purple Heart or anything that came after it. Now Don can go off and be Dick again, and in doing so he will be able to perhaps connect to the things in life he has always wanted but could never attain – love, family, and happiness.


mad 3At the end of the opening credits we see the silhouette sitting peacefully and smoking a cigarette – but that is not Don Draper. I believe that is Dick Whitman and he can finally relax and be the person he has always been meant to be. Yes, Don Draper will “die” in the end, but that’s the only way he can ever really live. Photo Credits: AMC, pixshark.com

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday – Thinking About Crosses That We All Bear

First appeared on Blogcritics.

cross1 Inspired by fellow Blogcritics writer Barbara Barnett’s terrific article, “Overcoming Our Personal Egypt(s) on Passover, I started thinking about Good Friday not just as a day of fasting and abstinence marking the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. I started considering the day in personal terms and how it affects us today. Ms. Barnett got me thinking when she wrote eloquently about her thoughts about Passover:
The story of Passover (Pesach) revolves around the redemption of the Children of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt. But the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, also means “narrows,” and we can find new meaning in the story of Egypt, the rituals of the seder, and question beyond the usual four by considering what it means to be redeemed from “the narrows” for our ancestors back then, and for us, here in the 21st Century.
It seemed to me that Jews would identify with her "Egypts" now and in their faith, and that we Christians could do the same as we face the heavy cross that Jesus must bear on Good Friday, and the inherent connection with Passover and Easter seems to make this all the more possible. Many people sometimes forget that on the first Holy Thursday, Jesus and his Apostles were having a traditional Passover seder. As they gathered and celebrated as they always had done before, Jesus changed things by making “a new covenant” not just with them but all people.
27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
In this way this new covenant does not subsume the one promised by God in the Old Testament; rather, it fulfills it – Jesus is the new covenant! All of this though comes at a price. The wine changed to Christ’s blood at that table for the first time (as we Catholics believe happens every time since when we celebrate the Mass) is not meant to be a symbolic chalice. We get to understand more fully about the "cup" later, when in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Jesus’s humanity shines through when he prays and asks God to free him from what awaits him:
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
cross2Jesus warns his Apostles that “the flesh is weak,” and then he proves it by wondering if he can get deliverance from the terrible fate of crucifixion – this is the actual cup that fulfills what he had said earlier at the dinner table.

The next day Jesus is brutally murdered by the Romans in what was their excruciatingly barbaric means of execution. Crucifixion was a deliberate, painful, drawn out death for all who experienced it. Jesus had suffered greatly even before getting to Calvary, where he would be executed. Scourged, beaten, and made to wear a crown of thorns (the bitterly ironic attempt by Romans to not just physically destroy him but to embarrass him and all Jews), Jesus had to carry the roughly 300 pound cross through the streets of Jerusalem (which is now marked in the church by the Stations or Way of the Cross).

Today we mark this somber moment – the most dark day in the Christian calendar – and people everywhere go to churches, participate in the stations, and pray to overcome the deep sadness of what happened so long ago. Some people go even further and participate in actual depictions of the “passion” with processions of the cross and even mock crucifixions.

cross3In the Phillipines this is taken to an entirely different level where some participants are actually nailed to a cross. This very extreme recognition of Christ’s pain and suffering is frowned upon by the Catholic church in that country, but it is a vivid representation of the aged-old sentiment of Christians who know that Jesus loved us so much that it hurt.

In everyday life we are all called to carry our own crosses. Some may not be a literal 300 pounds, but these worries, fears, and troubles can seem overwhelming to us, for some perhaps as daunting as that Way of the Cross fro Jesus. How are we ever going to get out from under the heft of these things?

People carry the weight of their crosses in different ways, but the truth is it can sometimes seem impossible to bear. It is important to know that when the weight gets to be too much  we don’t have to go it alone – even Jesus gets help from Simon of Cyrene during the Way of the Cross.

On this day more than any other perhaps we can evaluate the cross or crosses that we all bear. Luckily, we are not moving inexorably toward our deaths as Jesus was, but we can sometimes feel there is no way out for us either – and that is dangerous and potentially lethal.

Christians will suffer through the day today when all hope seems lost, and they will keep vigil on Holy Saturday (the last day of Lent), but they do so knowing that Sunday morning everything changes – Easter Sunday takes away all the worry and suffering that comes before. Easter is nothing about death but the vanquishing of it – Jesus’s Resurrection means we live now and forevermore.

We Christians are fortunate that we have this wonderful resolution, but that is not always possible for people bearing their own burdens in today's world. Here’s hoping that all of you laden with things that seem to weigh too much on your backs or your minds will find your own Easters to not only help you cope but overcome and thrive.

  Photo Credits: result2015.net, pixshark.com, ibtimes.co.uk

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mars-One: Would You Sign-On For A One-Way Trip to Mars?

mars1 I recently read a story regarding a young Long Island woman who is a finalist in a process to be selected to take a one-way trip to Mars. Laurel Kaye, a 21-year-old senior at Duke University, will be 33 when she departs on the mission if she is selected. While a one-way trip to Mars implies that Laurel will die on Mars, she has a different take on it:
"Dying is going to happen whether you are here or on Mars. I don’t see myself as dying on Mars; I see myself as living on Mars. Besides, taking one-way trips for a better future is the history of humanity."
mars3Are you impressed by such words from one so young? Or is it an enthusiasm that is not tempered by the realities of such a mission? Laurel alludes to the settlers who came to the New World with no intentions of ever returning to Europe, but the Americas were teaming with all the resources to support life. Does she not realize that she will be heading to a cold, distant planet where there is no oxygen or water supplies?

 Laurel hopes to be part of what is known as the Mars One project, an ambitious plan funded privately that will send a team to live on Mars and prepare to pave the way for others to do the same. The application process started in 2013, and at this point finalists will be selected and then training will begin this year. The full-time training will continue until 2026 when Crew One will depart for Mars. Crew Two is scheduled to leave in 2028.

If you are anything like I am, visions of Flash Gordon films are dancing in your heads. I am thinking of the exciting dreams many of us had as kids when fantasizing about space travel – the adventure, the exploration, and the discovery. However, while these may be some of the reasons for people applying for the project, the reality is not the stuff of kids' imaginations. Those selected will be entering nine years of intensive full-time preparation that will get them adjusted to living in a remote place, train to operate and repair the equipment that will keep them alive, and learn how to grow their own food within the habitat.

mars4In between the start of training and the departure date, many other things have to happen for this project to be successful. A satellite will be launched to Mars to provide communication to Earth, and then a subsequent mission will send a rover to scout the best location for settlement (including the hope of finding water in the soil). Other missions will bring cargo, living quarters, and life support systems in 2025. The rovers will assemble the units and make certain the interiors are ready to support life.

All of this will be waiting for Crew One when its members arrive. The interiors will have to be additionally completed by the arriving crew, but there will be “wet areas” including kitchens and bathrooms. The satellites will provide “24/7 communication with Earth,” which will allow the crew constant access to information and entertainment. With all these amenities in place, it sounds like Mars-One will have all the comforts of home – except for the fact that it will be 50 million or so (distance between Earth and Mars fluctuates) miles away.

In one sense I understand Laurel’s enthusiasm and attitude – someone always has to be the first to do something; however, no matter how she spins it, the woman is never coming home. Of course, after nine years of intensive training, she and the others will have already been distanced from “home." Once they reach their objective, it will probably help them to start thinking of the Red Planet as theirs if they’re going to succeed and survive.

Other implications apply here. They are preparing the way for more settlers. No doubt as it happened in the past here on Earth, these Mars colonists will start families and their children will grow up and have children – all of whom have never been to Earth. The concept of “home” will change considerably then, just as American colonists over the years felt little or no connection to England and believed that they were Americans. Will future generations of Mars-raised humans start thinking of themselves as Martians?

Right now there are many questions about Mars-One – most salient is if it will ever secure all the necessary funding to get the project to the realization of its goals. As of now Laurel Kaye and many others are hoping for the chance to get a one-way ticket to Mars. As incongruous as it sounds, these people are willingly ready to step on a ship and know that they will never come back.

mars2In some ways this amazing attitude is indicative of the human spirit to explore and learn about the unknown. Whether it has been new land masses, the ocean deep, or outer space, this corroborates the human need to get in touch with the untouchable. We old Star Trek fans were enthralled by concept of watching our favorite space travelers boldly going “where no man has gone before” every week, but now we have people wanting to take that challenge one step further – boldly going and never returning. I wonder what old Captain Kirk would think about that!


  Photo credits: nydaily news, blastr.com, mars-one.com,

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fondly Remembering Giving Up Things For Lent

First appeared on Blogcritics.


fish1 Christians across the world go to church marking Palm Sunday to celebrate Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem to a heroic welcome and the start of Holy Week. It is the most important and holiest week of the year for Christians, and it is one of solemnity and glory. It also marks the final week of “giving up” things, with Good Friday being the last day of abstinence and fasting (the first is Ash Wednesday which begins the Lenten season). During this time Christians go without certain things to honor the memory of Jesus and his time spent in the wilderness fasting and praying.


fish2

As a child I was always compelled to give up the obvious things – candy, cookies, and other treats. I also vividly recall that we did without meat on Fridays, and this was never seen as something negative in my house. In those days Mom would pick us up from school on Friday afternoons and we would go directly to the local fish store, where we would usually wait in line to pick up the makings of that evening’s dinner.

Sadly, I cannot even find a “fish store” in my neighborhood anymore. These days if I want the kind of attention (as to type of fish, weight, or cooking instructions) my mother got years ago, I will have to go to my big supermarket, wait on line at the fish counter, and hope I get someone who knows what he/she is doing. In my store there is also an adjacent sushi counter, where a Japanese chef seems to be always slicing and dicing things and serving people (I don’t eat sushi or anything else that is not thoroughly cooked).

My children have no idea what a fish store is, nor do they have experience with going to a butcher (also sadly gone), or a local drug store (unless you count CVS or Rite Aid as something “local”). These things are as foreign to them as a phone booth or a Sony Walkman, but then I digress.

I used to look forward to going to the fish store with Mom. While waiting on line, I gawked at all these huge fish hanging from hooks coming down from the ceiling. The sign “fresh caught” in the window always made me think that those men in white blood-splattered aprons went out on some boat, fought and caught these huge monsters, and brought them in for display. Also the counter was high and set atop large glass tanks filled with ice and fish, their eyes seemingly magnified as they were pressed up against the glass and ready to be in Mom’s frying pan that night. Then there was the smell of the place – it seemed as if I had walked onto a fisherman’s wharf or a fishing boat. Also, there always were the fish being fried that were sizzling on the stoves off to the side of the counter that added to the odd fecund aroma of the place.

These days we have been having fish on Fridays – and my kids are not as fond of it as I was. They don’t like the “smell” or the odor that lingers in the house after cooking. I have stumbled upon frozen fish sticks as the best thing for them – apparently if I tell them that they are eating chicken fingers and provide copious amounts of ketchup, they don’t know the difference.

My kids have been good about giving up other things though. They have given up toys, electronics, and sweets in various combinations over the weeks of Lent. They have also been ready to do extra chores like folding wash, vacuuming, and dusting. They do understand why they are doing it, and there is a feeling of satisfaction that they are not only giving things up because they’re supposed to but because they want to do it.

Lent is something like a second chance at all those New Year’s resolutions. All the things we promised to give up on January 1st – and were back to indulging in by January 2nd – are out there to be revisited. This year I gave up my most favorite and delicious indulgence – ice cream. Not having it all these weeks has made me realize that I don’t have to go back to eating it on Easter Sunday or perhaps ever again, but I probably will because passing any Carvel store has induced hunger pangs and memories of old Tom Carvel saying, “Cookie Pus” in his TV commercials.

I remember other kids complaining about Lent years ago, about not liking fish or giving up sweets, but I never felt that way. As I have gotten older I have appreciated Lent more each year because it reminds me that there are so many who do without all year long, and that it is a way of remembering. It also is a good thing for my children to recognize how it feels not to have something they like and understand that there are people all over the world who are hungry, thirsty, and in need all the time. This makes the idea of almsgiving necessary and compelling not just 40 days a year but all year long – my daughter will volunteer at the local senior citizen’s center every Sunday to accomplish this.

fish3As Lent ends there is the joy that Easter brings, but there is also the memory of what we have done in the 40 previous days. I know my kids will happily go back to their iPods and iPads, not miss in any way folding laundry or vacuuming, and long for a fish-free odor in our kitchen. But having grown used to fish on Friday, I’m not certain that I want to relinquish that weekly meal that brings back great memories of long ago in that fish store holding Mom’s hand and imagining the exploits of those men who bravely brought that dinner to our table. I think I want to hold on to that for a while longer at least.

  Photo credits: the-works.net, salemquincy .org, zekosgrill.com

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Flash Fiction: Lazarus of the Four Days

First appeared on Blogcritics.

laz-1“I am an old man now,” he thinks as he stares out at the Bay of Larnaca, remembering when he died 30 years before.

“Bishop,” asks a young woman, “are you okay?” Lazarus turns to her, his face framed by Cape Kiti and the turquoise sea beneath it.

“Yes, my dear.” She is holding the hand of a young boy with eyes as blue as the sky above. The child’s eyes remind him of his friend, the one who raised him from the dead.

“Go on now,” the old man says, “I’m fine.” As the woman and the boy depart, Lazarus glances at the Salt Lake and remembers the old woman who denied him grapes on a hot day. He cursed the lake behind her and turned its fresh water to salt, and Lazarus always regrets this one angry moment.

He walks down to the village and sees the fishing boats coming in from the sea. He recalls Paul and Barnabas visiting him once long ago, declaring him Bishop of Kition with much fanfare. Lazarus still does not feel worthy of this title, but he has healed people both physically and spiritually, or so they tell him.

He goes into his humble house, shutting the door and hooking it to prevent unwanted visitors from entering. There is always someone seeking his company, but more than anything they want to know his secrets, but there are none – except for those four days when he had died and been in the world of the dead.

Lazarus looks at old trinkets on his desk, ones that remind him of his sisters Martha and Mary. When he saw Paul and Barnabas they told him that his sisters remained in Bethany, with no one bothering them. That was long ago and he wonders if they are still alive. He has often thought about going back to his home town, but there is the memory of the reason why he left – their enemies wanted to kill him as they did Jesus.

He shivers as he thinks of the day Jesus died on the cross. He had already been pursued by Roman soldiers and the Temple Guard since the day Jesus brought him back from dead, and John had taken him to a safe house where he could wait for a time without fear. In this small dark place his sisters came to see him one last time. 

Jesus was arrested last night,” Martha said. Mary fought back tears. 

“Today he was condemned to death by Pilate.” 

Lazarus shook with anger. “But they can’t; he is the Christ!” 

Despite the dangers outside, the three siblings raced to the scene of the crucifixion, but Martha and Mary prevailed upon Lazarus to stay secluded in the distance behind trees. They proceeded forth and stood with John and Jesus’s mother Mary, wailing as Jesus died on the cross. 

Lazarus cried silent tears as he fell down against a tree, but suddenly he had an awakening. He thought, “If he could raise me from the dead, he can raise himself too!” 

He didn’t stay in Jerusalem to see that happen. The day after Jesus died his sisters arranged passage to the sea, where he boarded a ship that took him on the first and last voyage of his life. He would learn of Jesus’s resurrection from a traveler long after he arrived, falling on the rocky beach and screaming to the heavens in joy.

After making some tea, Lazarus answers a knock at the door. It is a stranger dressed in dark robes. “I need to speak to you, Bishop. I am in great need.” Lazarus invites him in and offers him tea. They sit at a simple table, the cups of tea steaming between them. “Where are you from, stranger?”

laz-3The man stares down at his cup. “Some say that you once died and came back to life.”

Lazarus nodded. “Yes.”

“They say you were raised from the dead by Jesus of Nazareth.” 

“Yes, everyone here in Kition knows my tale.”

“And it is said that you never smile, never laugh, never enjoy these precious days given to you by your friend? If that is true it saddens me.”

“But it is true in only that I knew something from the other side, something I still cannot fathom or reconcile in my mind.”

The man lifts his head and removes the dark veil from his face. “You have had 30 years to do this, but you could not comprehend the great gift.”

Lazarus sips his tea. “I am grateful for what I could do for others, building his church here and spreading his word. That is as it was meant to be.”

“Yes, but should you not have enjoyed life more fully, as God your father intended?”

“Perhaps, perhaps I should have smiled at the children, should have danced at weddings, enjoyed more fruit of the vine, and embraced life more.”

“In my name, if nothing else, old friend.” Lazarus tries to focus his old eyes, and then recognizes Jesus sitting there before him. He drops to his old knees, clasping hands together, crying as he screams, “Please forgive me, Lord.”

laz-2Jesus lifts him without moving from the chair, and Lazarus is sitting again at the table and shaking. “Your good works here in Kition are many, and you have done well with your ministry for others, old friend. I just wish you had done more for yourself.”

“You went down there among the dead, my Lord. You know what I saw!” 

Jesus rises from the chair. “All the more reason to embrace life.”

“Now, it’s too late for me.”

“Rise, Lazarus, and this time come forth with me.”

“But where are we going, my Lord?”

“We will celebrate in Paradise.” Jesus holds his hand and Lazarus rises, leaving his old frail body behind. 

*

 When the villagers found their beloved Bishop Lazarus the next day, it was said by all that he had died with a smile on his face.

  Photo credits: wikiart.org, stspress.com, suitqaisdiaries.com