Saturday, June 30, 2012

In today's mail ...

It's always interesting to see what might pop up in the mail after a death of a loved one. We don't get many peaks at this particular business, fortunately, but when it happens it is instructive.

When my father died many years ago, I didn't receive that many business letters. I do remember one from a Western New York cemetery, even though Dad had died in Florida, that came months after his passing. The sales pitch for a grave included a crude drawing with a diagram of a stone. On that drawing read the words, "Lincoln Bailey - beloved mother." If they aren't going to get that right, what else could go wrong?

Since my mother died, she was sent a survey from the hospital where she spent some of her last few days.  The note explained that the hospital wanted to check on the quality of care. The survey started, "How would you describe your state of health at the present time: excellent, good, fair or poor?" Since there was nothing below poor, I sort of chuckled and threw it out.

Today I received a couple of letters to Mom's "estate." The first started out, "First and most importantly, may I offer my condolences on the passing of your loved one." Then the author says that he is interested in buying the house.

"I will purchase the property in it's [sic] 'As-Is" condition and pay all cash with no contingencies for financing," the letter reads. ".. I'm sure I can give you a fair offer and get cash in your hands right away."

OK, I've received one other such letter in the past few months. So I opened the next piece of mail addressed to Mom's estate. "First and foremost," I offer my condolences on the passing of your loved one," it reads. "... I will purchase the house in it's [sic] as-is condition ... and pay all CASH with no contingencies." At the end the letter states, "I'm SURE that I can give you a fair offer and get cash in your hands quickly." Jimmy Culler might have been more sure than Joe Creasy to use all caps.

There are other similarities in the language of the letter ["Losing a loved one can be a very difficult and stressful time"]. At least the names and phone numbers are different.

Who knew that there was a form letter for people trying to swoop in on grieving families members and scoop up property at below-market prices? And who knew those people don't know how to use it's and its?

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shades of gray

Becoming a sports fan of a particular individual seems to be getting more complicated by the day.

Back when I still had the cliched childlike innocence, which I think lasted into my 30's, having a favorite player was pretty easy. Pick someone good, and root, root, root for him -- maybe even go see him or her perform, or put a picture of the athlete up on the wall.

Times have changed, as they always do. A career in sports journalism has made me much less star-struck around the best athletes, so I don't root nearly as much, But a lot of people still do, of course, and they must be in a bit of a quandary.

Examples? Got a few of them.

An obvious starting point is Tiger Woods. Here's a guy with absolute blinding talent. I'm not quite ready to proclaim him the best golfer in history, yet, but he's already in the argument and he's still building his resume. Woods was at one time so good that the reporter in me wanted someone else to win, just to have a different story for discussion.

You know what happened next. Woods' wife took a golf club to his car one Thanksgiving night, story after story came out about his infidelities, and he hasn't won a major tournament since. But his game is coming back. He's won a couple of times, and you'd still want him on your Ryder Cup team or President's Cup team or your side in a dollar Nassau at the local course. But do you root for him, now, after  public apologies?

I'd love to see a poll on that question. And the most interesting result would be split up by sex. I've run into a lot of women who would prefer that Tiger spend most of his time on the golf course looking for lost golfs balls in areas loudly marked "out of bounds."

Then there's Kobe Bryant, a even more complicated case. He was accused of rape in Colorado in 2003. The case was settled out of court with both sides agreeing to keep quiet over the matter. We probably will never know what happened there.

There is much to admire in Bryant's game. He is an amazing player in many ways, more determined than just about anyone in the sports business. Mix that with athletic gifts, and you have a special player. Who else would you want to take the last shot of a game? Heck, he even tries -- hard -- on defense. Bryant has worked hard on his public image, playing for the Olympic team, etc.since that incident.

So ... in 2012, would you want your son to have a Kobe Bryant poster in his room? The answer might reveal more about you than him.

If you like your heroes in the past tense, Roger Clemens certainly qualifies. In his early days with the Red Sox, he commanded attention whenever he took the mound. He was always capable of doing something spectacular, and seemed on his way to becoming ranked as the best ever by some standards.

Then came along the story that he was given steroids by his trainer, Brian McNamee. Clemens denied it in front of Congress, and was the subject of a perjury trial for his efforts. Reviewing, Clemens' wife received illegal shots, and his best friend, Andy Pettitte, received illegal shots, and McNamee had Clemens' DNA on needles that he reportedly saved for years. Those are interesting facts but circumstantial evidence. Most would agree that people who deal in such substances aren't exactly first-rank citizens, and it sounds from a distance that it came down to Clemens' word against McNamee. Clemens was found not guilty of lying to Congress, which is not the same as not doing it. It's easy to wonder what Clemens thinks about when he goes to sleep these days.

We can't exactly root for or against Clemens these days in the traditional sense, since he's been retired for quite a while. But we can watch with interest when his name appears on a Hall of Fame ballot and react accordingly to the results. The voters haven't been kind to the steroid generation so far, and Clemens has been lumped in with names like Bonds, Sosa and McGwire. Yet Clemens has that jury verdict to wave at the voters. Will that work? I would guess not enough to elect him right away.

The villains in real life almost always come not in black and white, but shades of gray -- I guess with the exception of Jerry Sandusky, who ought to get a circle of hell built just for him in the coming days. You're on your own determining which side of the line they fall.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dorothy Lamour and my mother

Cleaning out the house of a loved one is not a task I would recommend to anyone. Obviously, it means that said loved one has died.

With that stated, it is an interesting process -- because you never know what you might find. After all, there are a lifetime of memories packed away in a house, and in some cases some of a spouse's memories are enclosed as well.

I spent last week at my mother's condo, cleaning and sorting and discarding a variety of items. Mom used to like jigsaw puzzles, but I uncovered a few mysteries that don't quite fit together.

Such as ... the land in England.

In 1987, my father gave my mother a very small plot of land in Canterbury in England. I don't know how small it is, but since it cost about $50 I can't imagine it's big enough for a housing development. The idea is to say the recipient is a landowner in England, while helping keep an area as undisturbed from development. In this case, Dad purchased the plot from the Old England Heritage Foundation, 3 The Ness in Canterbury in Kent.

But ... there is no record anywhere of the Old England Heritage Foundation. It doesn't even come up on Google (although it will now). The street is next to a hospital in Kent, but there's no listing of any sort of business there. In other words, there's no easy way to find out what happened to the family estate in England. I guess the information goes into my filing cabinet, where someone else will look it up (hopefully way) down the road.

Then there is the key to the city of Ranson, West Virginia.

At least, I came across a metal object that was key-shaped, almost a foot long. It had "Ranson, West Virginia" on it. The family does have a connection there. When my father's plant shut down in Elmira in 1968, he was offered a job at another company in Ranson. We drove down there, looked around, and decided that the area wasn't for us. Perhaps it was the fact that there were outhouses visible from the road that scared us off. I think it was the last outhouse I ever saw.

It's tough to know what the story was. Maybe it was given out to a variety of employees of the parent company of the Ranson plant. Maybe the town was so happy that we weren't coming that we were given a gift in appreciation. I only know two things for sure: I'll never know the answer, and the key doesn't open anything.

Finally, there's the story of my mother and the movie star.

We found a scrapbook that my Mom had from her childhood. Inside was an article how Mom had been selected to present Dorothy Lamour, she of the so-called Road movies, some flowers during a War Bonds rally sometime during World War II. (It might not be that exact cause, but you get the idea.) And then on the next page, there was a newspaper clipping with a picture of my mother on a stage with Dorothy Lamour.

The funny part was that I never heard about this. OK, I was only around her for 56 years. Still, it never came up.

Yet that's not the strange part of the story. I lived in the same house as Mom for quite a while, and then came back a lot to visit. I'd often stumble on things by accident with a child's curiosity. Somehow a scrapbook from Mom's childhood survived all of those moves and all that exploration without being noticed. Heck, my mom had a birthday party as a child, and it was a big enough event to make "The Brockton Enterprise." Was it a slow news day, or just a small town paper at work? I also didn't notice a variety of pictures, cards, etc. from her past that were discovered along the way. A woman who hated to have her picture taken and seemed to wave off much of nostalgia as silly had a couple of large boxes filled with personal effects.

It's interesting to find a few more pieces to the puzzle of a life, but the process is a reminder that I'll never be able to look at the complete picture.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

The last Five Spot

I returned to work after a week's vacation today to discover that Five Spot had passed away while I was gone. I had written some items today without hearing that bit of news, so I pass them along for one last chuckle (I hope):


Tommy Lasorda was talked into visiting a hospital by Joe Torre last week, and doctors found a 90 percent blockage in one of Lasorda’s arteries. Funny - it’s usually Mariano Rivera that gets the save, not Torre.


Outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin helped Pawtucket to a big weekend series triumph over the Bisons. It’s a good thing Rhode Island newspapers saved their “Lin-sanity” headline ideas.


The Mets’ pitching staff boasts such players as 6-foot-10 Chris Young and 6-foot-11 Jon Rauch. New York may not win the National League East this year, but it is already favored for next season’s NBA Central Division.


Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his long winless streak in NASCAR on Sunday. Immediately following the race, Celery announced he was ending his short-lived retirement in the Bisons’ mascot races.


Syracuse will play a game against San Diego State on an aircraft carrier this upcoming season. Orange coach Jim Boeheim will play anywhere as long as he has the home-ocean advantage.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Another Great Wallenda

On Friday night, Nik Wallenda will attempt to walk across the gorge by Niagara Falls on a wire. It's fair to say this has created some buzz in the community. The event will be broadcast live on ABC, and the local news outlets have been failing over each other, if you'll excuse that phrase under the circumstances, to give the latest updates of the event.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've already seen Nik's ancestor, Karl, at work. At a baseball game in Cleveland, no less.

It was 1975, and the Indians were playing a double-header at cavernous Municipal Stadium. (I believe you always have to use the word "cavernous" to describe the place.) The between-games "entertainment" was Karl Wallenda, who walked on a tight robe from the roof on the third base side to the roof on the first base side.

Our seats were in the upper deck well down the third base line. Karl walked more or less foul pole to foul pole, which put him pretty close to above us. I brought my Instamatic camera (do a Google search, kids), and took the picture you see above. That's the roof on top of the picture. Yes, he made it across safely. I still remember my friend Kevin, who looked up at Karl and said, "How can he do that?!" By the way, Kevin was afraid of heights at the time.

Karl was 70 years old at the time of his walk in Cleveland, and part of a family that specialized in such stunts. The Great Wallendas first arrived in the United States in 1928. Alas tragedy dogged the family. Karl fell off a wire between two ten-story buildings in Puerto Rico in 1978 and plunged to his death.

Daredevils have been associated with Niagara Falls since forever. Someone once walked across the gorge on a wire with equipment, stopped in the middle, prepared a meal, and then finished the walk.

I'm all for people having the right to do silly things as long as they don't hurt others. Still, it's easy to feel uncomfortable with the whole idea. That's because of the obvious question, "What if he falls and dies?" There was a pre-stunt debate about Nik's use of some sort of harness, which would prevent him from plunging into the gorge on national television but would make the walk more difficult. In addition, such projects rely on a certain amount of tolerance if not help from the government, since it's on public land and people will be coming to see it. Is this the sort of project that the government should be implicitly supporting?

It's all rather complicated, and it's easy to feel a little manipulated by all concern. But the daredevil knows that most can't look away. So good luck, Nik, and a hearty "safe travels" to you.

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Friday, June 08, 2012

Running past empty

It's a rather common belief that the slower you go, the more you'll see. In other words, when you take a walk, you'll notice more than if you drive through the same area in a car.

And since I'm not exactly the fastest runner in Western New York, I have plenty of time to notice the neighborhoods when I'm hitting the streets.

In the past few weeks, I've had the chance to visit a couple of areas in Buffalo that aren't on my usual list of destinations, thanks to running in races. In the first, we started at Roswell Park, went up to Main St., down Dodge, around on Jefferson and past the site of the late War Memorial Stadium, back down Best, and over to the hospital. In the second race, we ran a long rectangle from William and Emslie. It went down Emslie to Clinton, all the way down around the library and back down William to the starting point.

For those unfamiliar, let's say these are not the neighborhoods that Mario Williams saw when the Bills were recruiting him as a free agent. Poverty is depressing to witness at close range.

On Emslie, an abandoned church watched over us within the first half-mile of the race. It looked beautiful, once upon a time. I talked with someone who went to a wedding as an usher there once upon a time. He said it was a elaborate facility; he still has the pictures from the ceremony. Now, it's boarded up, except upstairs where the old windows are mostly in pieces or are missing altogether.

On both race routes, there were two constants -- vacant houses and empty lots. I'm not sure which is worse -- the idea that someone is living in a rundown home, or not living in it so that it can become a drug house and drag the cycle of poverty in the area to greater depths. Meanwhile, you may have heard about the "urban prairie" that's developing in such places. We're a few demolition projects from turning blocks of city into something that would resemble Western Nebraska. Youngstown, Ohio, answered the situation by simply kicking everyone out of certain blocks and turning off city services. There are a few pockets of better situations in Buffalo, thanks to government- or church-built housing, but there aren't enough of them for anyone's tastes. And they sure aren't on the side streets for the most part.

Poverty obviously has existed forever. Still, what comes to mind when running through such situations? Sadness and helplessness. In other words, I have absolutely no idea what can be done about these areas.

I don't know if anyone else can do anything about it, either. But I sure don't hear anyone talking about it on the campaign trail these days because -- perhaps, to be cynical -- that there aren't many votes to be gained there. Then again, part of the Republican base seemingly would be much happier if we cut away the safety net from the poor with the sharpest knife possible. Meanwhile, the Democrats don't seem to be bursting with new ideas on the subject either.

And that's what we need -- fresh ideas. We really need to turn small urban areas into laboratories, find out what works, and spread the word. I'm sure Jack Kemp's "enterprise zones" wasn't the last such idea on the subject, although it seems like it.

Talking about it would be a good start, though. Then we could look for answers -- one step at a time.

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