Review Category : Jack Sparacino

Postcards from the edges (of the country)

By Jack Sparacino
I’ve enjoyed writing this column, from the silly or tongue in cheek to more serious pieces. The feedback I’ve received so far has been supportive and informative.  Much of it was from people who approached me on the street or in stores.  Or wrote to me from both coasts.  Here are some examples, starting with the subject of the column and ending, in some cases, with my comment on the comment in italics.

Random thoughts: pineapple wine.
After I wondered why practically all wine is made from grapes, this note came in from the Pacific Northwest:
“By the way, you can get pineapple wine in Hawaii.  I had it years ago and was expecting it to be sweet but it was rather dry.  I’m sure you can make wine out of any fruit that has sugar in it.”
Thanks, Mr. R., good to know!  Sounds like another good excuse to visit Hawaii.
Biographies.
“Jack, I have only a minute.  That piece was SUPERIOR.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Where do you get the time — away from fishing — to do all this reading?”
Thanks so much, Jim.  Actually, I don’t read very fast at all, unfortunately, I’m just persistent. Same with fishing, I’m more persistent (or lucky) than good.
Random thoughts: grits.
“Jack, nice article but you must not have had grits done right. We love ‘em and you should try again.”
OK, Mrs. D., it’s on my list.  Promise.  What time should we come over?
Time travel.
“I LOVE this piece … wild and wacky!  It would be a great assignment for a history class. It would really give the teacher some insight into what the kids learned.”
All of them.
“Your sense of humor is like my husband’s, keep it up.”  “You think like me.”  “How do you do it?  Where does all that come from?”
Well, imagine an old barn that’s stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of miscellaneous stuff.  That’s something like my brain. I just grab a box, so to speak, take a look inside to jog my memory, and then start typing.  Google really helps, too, when I only half remember something.
“Just wanted to tell you how much I thoroughly enjoy reading these!!  I can hear your voice in my head as if you’re reading them to me — what a trip!  You have no idea how much I look forward to them.”
Clamsgiving.
“The steamed clams over linguine were fantastic by the way.  Tried a recipe that added chorizo, clam juice, pepper flakes, and cream to the white wine and lemon juice.  Just a bit of a kick, though, and with all the garlic … well, let’s just say you want to be in the company of good friends.”
I didn’t think you could ever put too much garlic in a dish!
On the 10 best things since sliced bread:
“Honorable mentions? HD TV, IPODs, the freezer, Gortex, flown in fresh vegetables and fruit.”
“Jack, Great article. Never thought about the items you outlined.  Just one thing I can do without: CELL PHONES. You take your life in your hands when you go out in the car.”
“Hey, Jack, you forgot to mention all the great pharmaceuticals that are now making people’s lives better by lowering cholesterol, improving their mental health, etc.  You should do an entire column on this.”
Thanks, Mr. B., I can see it now: “Pills ‘R Us”!
On my New Year’s resolutions:
“I think I’ll just resolve to gain weight, at least that way I know I wouldn’t give up on it by January 16.  I could probably make that one last all year.”
Gee, Mrs. R., Let’s introduce you to Mr. B.  He may be able to recommend a weight loss (or gain) medication and one for keeping your sense of humor!
On “Have a Rice Day”:
“This is great! Lots of interesting facts! You reminded me of a stop that M. and I made on our trip to Louisiana in early December.  We saw America’s oldest operating rice mill!  You may be interested to read the history on their website, http://www.conradricemill.com. It was really neat, and the rice was delicious!”
On “Shoot to Kill”:
“Good job keeping the lessons from your cancer experience simple and to the point.  Hopefully it will motivate at least one additional man out there to get tested if he needs to and to catch the disease early so it can be cured.”
Thanks, Mr. M., that’s really the only reason I wrote it.  Let’s keep our eyes open.
On the 10 greatest pop songs:
“My all time favorite is “What a Wonderful World”   by Louis Armstrong. Good article and it got me thinking. Thanks.”
“A very good top 10.  I probably would have put a Beatles song in there because they were the most influential rock band of all time, in my opinion, but still a very respectable list.”
“Some great songs.  Just curious, was the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” considered?”
Leaving out the Beatles was a calculated risk—they were incredible.  That Eagles song was a real contender.  Next time we won’t fly by it so quickly.
On the 10 worst things since broccoli:
“#3. Mosquitoes: I’ve often questioned their assignment on the planet. Once we cure cancer, they’re next up. Call it spending on infrastructure. Less is more. Sell it. #2. Yellow linoleum floor:  Just picturing it gives me the creeps. Looks so dirty you can feel it crawling. I can see half of it in my mind’s eye, but I know there is trash on the other half. I must have received more than a shot on one. Probably sat on one with a fifth of cheap vodka.”
“FUN article.  I enjoyed reading it.”
“Agree with many of your 10 worst but have to disagree on sake.  I bet you have only had the warm kind served at Japanese restaurants. Good sake will cost you at least $25 for a bottle and should be served at temps around 60 degrees.  It has a very nice flavor with lots of aroma.  I just had a sake tasting at my house.  We did six at various price ranges and they all tasted quite different. There’s a store here that only sells premium sake, nothing else.”
“We must have similar palates — I also hate sea urchin, radishes and sake!  However, I am OK with fried clams.  In fact, a great place for them is Bob’s Clam Shack in Kittery, Maine (the first exit off of 95 once you get to Maine). If you ever find yourself in Maine, their lobstah rolls and fried haddock are also great!”
OK, Laura, that does it — we’re on our way. Maybe I should bring along some fishing gear? (Right, and also remember to breathe.)
Thanks to all for your comments.  I’ve really enjoyed hearing from you.

Read More →

80 degrees and you’re wearing a coat?

By Jack Sparacino
Well, there’s nothing like a summer break to get your perspective back and reach a few more conclusions about the vital issues in life.  Here are a few that dawned on me recently.
1. Sure, it gets cold down here sometimes but obviously it’s more likely to be quite warm or at least comfortable. When I see older people walking around wearing a nice looking coat when it’s 80 degrees, I can only conclude they’re not just trying to be fashionable.  Maybe for every year past 60 the air feels a half a degree or so cooler than it really is.
2. We may be overlooking the inherent beauty of harp music as the music and advertising people keep us focused on rock and roll. Harpo Marx (1888-1964) was well known for his expert, even concert level performances.  In Marx Brothers movies, of course, they were a signature part of his act.  Even in an otherwise fairly forgettable film they made late in their careers in 1946, “Night in Casablanca,” Harpo played a lovely solo toward the end of the film that still endears him to us some 65 years later.
3. Apparently almost anything can be used as a weapon. This is made abundantly clear in Lee Child’s amazing Jack Reacher mystery series as Reacher manages to pound the bad guys to a pulp using everything from his fists to pool cues. In one book, he manages to overcome 6 to 1 odds in a bar by hurling bar stools at the evil doers.
4. Bagels may be just about the most perfect anytime food.  They’re just plain good to great 24 hours a day.  With eggs in the morning, made into a sandwich for lunch or dinner, maybe a late night snack.  Seems like you can put almost anything on them and they practically smile back at you.
5. Is somebody getting to the bottom of all those bogus warning lights in cars?  You know, like the “check engine” light which seems to often signify nothing.  And what about my car’s persistent warning that I’ve lost a headlight when there’s not a thing wrong with them?  Maybe there should just be a little “F.A.” (False Alarm) light that goes on to let you know for sure that there’s nothing going on.
6. Speaking of cars, lots of people love the smell of a new car, maybe mostly because they like the idea of having a new car and anything associated with it just takes on the positive aura.  This may account for my having developed a liking for the smell of new sneakers right out of the box.  Or a new bike.  Maybe it’s a transportation thing.
7. I’m almost ready to start believing in voodoo. How else to explain why so many of us walk confidently to a room for something but by the time we get there we can’t remember what it was.  Then as soon as you leave to go back to where you came from, that escaped thought comes right back at you.  Out of nowhere, it seems, since there’s seldom someone right there giving you hints.  Or how about when you start to blow your lawn or driveway and right away the wind changes direction and blows everything right back at you? What’s that all about?
8. A bow tie is one of those garments that is so geeky looking it’s almost cool, at least on men. On women, they can look great, even without a sequined top hat.
9. Calling something “Mickey Mouse” to signify that it’s trivial or worthless does a great disservice to all the great things Walt’s little mouse has accomplished over the past 75 years and his happy personality.  I say we turn “Mickey Mouse” into a compliment at our earliest convenience.
10. Among a dog’s many talents is the apparent ability to tell when people are sick. A growing body of credible research seems to demonstrate that dogs can sniff out various cancers and even Type 1 diabetes.  Their amazing sense of smell and the ability to detect odors in the low parts-per-billion range once again point to dogs’ incredible ability to enrich people’s lives.
OK, that’s my list, time to go back outside. Could look for a good used harp or a bagel.  Do I need a coat?  Maybe just a fright wig and a horn.

Read More →

Noticing my way to Charleston

By Jack Sparacino
Like a lot of people, I’ve become a “selective noticer” over the years.  There are whole categories of things I tend to gloss over, minimize, or just ignore.  My wife used to say that I could practically trip over a dead body coming home from work and it would barely register.  Other things really do get my undivided attention, like exactly where my line is and how fast it’s moving when I’m fishing for sea trout.  And some stuff falls in between, subject to a “cursory perusal,” as a fellow student once put it right before we all burst out laughing.  But as a result of reading the riveting Jack Reacher series by mystery writer extraordinaire Lee Child, I’ve been trying to hone my noticing skills.  Sort of a thinly veiled, early New Year’s resolution.
Not that I can quickly absorb, Reacher-like, every micro detail in a new situation, and assess every threat or opportunity.  Far from it.  But I’m working on getting just a little better.  Several recent drives to MUSC in Charleston helped put my new objective to the test. Here are a few things I managed to notice without swerving off the road (or even slowing down).
1. Not that all dirt HAS to be brown or sandy, but we sure do have expansive stretches of downright red earth.  It looks like crushed bricks or copper dust.  Makes me wonder whether you can grow anything in it.  How about red potatoes?  Red beets?  Red cabbage?  How about good old rhubarb?
2. There are more roadside fireworks stores to choose from than exist in maybe all of New England.  I wonder if the owners know each other. Do they have special sales from time to time?  Can you get written instructions on how to use their products safely? Is it OK to leave them locked in your car on a hot day?
3. Good golly Miss Molly, there ARE Indian restaurants within a two hour radius of Beaufort!  How nice to see one right on Route 17.  You can practically smell the tandoori chicken and those great curry sauces from your car. Hey, what time is my appointment? Did they say it was OK to come in with a full stomach?
4. You’ve got to love the sign that warns that “bridge freezes before road.”  The first time I noticed this sign, my temperature gage showed it was 95 degrees outside. The forecast called for more of the same relentless heat, pretty much indefinitely.  Wonder if the bridge also melts before the road does.
5. Passing a company whose sign indicated “specialty products” really sparked my interest. Countless companies make just plain regular products, but how many make specialty ones?  It just prompts one’s imagination to run wild.  Finally, a place to buy spare parts for my time machine — maybe a special gamma ray deflecting, titanium alloy rear view mirror to really trick it out.  Or how about a hand held device with “specialty” apps for detecting creatures from other planets?  OK, back down to Earth. Maybe just a cordless vacuum cleaner. Or how about a five gallon bucket with a cushioned bottom so you could sit on it more comfortably?
6. Who knew there were motels that charged as little as $24 a day?  So THAT’s why they had the word “budget” on their sign. Of course, you could hold out for a seriously higher rate at luxury palaces like The Charleston Place, a terrific hotel with all kinds of amenities, but what’s not to like about $24 bucks? That’s only about the price of a shirt. I’m assuming you get air conditioning and a TV.  Hopefully crisp sheets and a working shower with those little soaps. Maybe free coffee and a newspaper, or is that pushing things?
7. As you begin to get near the Ashley River Memorial Bridge that takes you into downtown Charleston, you see lots of brick houses lining both sides of Route 17. Smaller ones on the right, larger homes on the left.  This is a happy sight insofar as brick houses suggest strength and stability.  I’m guessing they are relatively resistant to storm damage, maybe even provide better insulation against temperature extremes. In any case, they’re sure nice to look at.
The Lowcountry is just a great place to live, and for a lot of reasons. This includes our relative proximity to Charleston, one of the most charming small cities in the country. While I can think of more entertaining things to do up there than undergo various medical tests and procedures at MUSC, the drive itself can be a welcome distraction.  Especially if you’re trying to focus on focusing.  And many of the journeys we all take in life are truly more important than our destinations.  Or so I’m noticing.

Read More →

Snake bite blues

By Jack Sparacino
Despite my recent attempts to cover the entire entertainment business in two entire pages, readers tell me there are still a few more subjects that deserve some attention. This time I enlisted the help of those eclectic wizards, the Adage Re-visitation Team, so surely this list closes all the gaps in my previous reporting and ensures that 100 or so years of “modern” entertainment have been comprehensively addressed.
1. Patsy Cline. Shouldn’t her name appear on THE master list of American treasures? Thankfully, one can contact the Always Patsy Cline Fan Organization in Joelton, Tenn.  After all, Ms. Cline did become the first solo female artist ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Pretty impressive. She had her own (in 1993, 29 cent) stamp. She was also ranked 46th in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” (should have been in the top 10 if you ask me). Her collection of timeless hits, including “Crazy” and “Walkin’ After Midnight,” still soars.
2. Dustin Hoffman. Remember that 30-ish young actor who won us over with his winning performance in “The Graduate”? Incredibly, that was more than 40 years ago, but his pizzazz and incredible skills have endured like a fine watch. Watching his performance as Ace Bernstein in the TV series “Luck” reminds one of the research that demonstrates how time seems to go by increasingly faster as you get older.
3. Slide guitar music. I think the entire music industry would collapse like a house of match sticks without top slide guitar musicians who can take you to a wonderful place in just a few bars.  Just watching their hands dance across the frets is enough to make you smile.
4. Dog shows.  Love dogs?  Check.  Love intense competition? Check.  Don’t mind watching some breeds you’ve never seen or heard of win first place when your favorites underwhelm the judges?  Err, check. Even when they’re kooky looking and their owners wear goofy clothes? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere, I suppose, but maybe some of the owners just need to put on a decent pair of jeans and a polo shirt and we’re good to go.
5. Ventriloquists. Interesting how some of the best known performers over the years moved their lips more than some who’ve remained relatively obscure.  The real issue may be how well audiences relate to the characters in the act as opposed to pure technique.  Edgar Bergen and Paul Winchell, for example, were hard to beat.
6. Minor league baseball. By the time you get to AA baseball, it starts to look a lot like major league play.  I remember watching a couple of pitchers start warming up in the bullpen in Bridgeport, Conn., for the Bluefish one night.  They were about 20 years old.  I was 10 feet away and they were both throwing pellets. The balls exploded in the catchers’ gloves. It’s just great fun to watch a major league player perform well after you’ve seen him dazzle in the minors.
7. Antiques Road Show.  You’ve got to give this program all kinds of credit for having apparently helped to inspire cable TV derivatives like “Storage Wars,” “American Pickers,” and “Pawn Stars.”  The best scenes often involve people who have enjoyed owning a special thingamajig for years but practically fall over backwards when they learn that it’s worth more than almost anything else they own.  “Oh … my … GOODNESS!”  And what a great way to learn some history.
8. The power of blue.  After weeks of research, I can only conclude that blue seems to be the top color in song titles.  The list is seemingly endless and includes “Blue Danube,” “Am I Blue,” “Blue Moon,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Bluer Than Blue,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Bluebird of Happiness,” “Hard Luck Blues,” “Blue Skies,” “Blue Moon Over Kentucky,” and perhaps my favorite, “Blue Bayou.” It’s interesting to note that most of these songs are fundamentally happy ones, unless listening to the blues gives you the blues.
9. Snake charmers. Not to be confused with snake oil salesmen or ordinary horn or woodwind players, these guys give all new meaning to the power of charm schools.  I’m curious to know if the “industry” tracks accident rates. How many serious snake bites occur annually? I’ll bet that could give you the blues.
10. Lady Gaga. Our son alerted us to this artist three years ago. Silly us, she was already a 60 zillion megawatt star before we ever heard of her.  Her incredible stage shows notwithstanding, it’s a treat to hear her sing and play the piano without any electronics or a kaleidoscope of energetic young performers accompanying her.  Or the outrageous costumes. Just Lady Gaga.  By herself.  Maybe she really WAS born that way.
11. Smash. This network TV show about how a Broadway musical gets developed is simply dazzling. The dancing, singing, negotiating, backbiting and endless rehearsing help one better understand how challenging the entire process is.  And maybe why ticket prices are what they are.
OK, that about does it.  Three pages to cover 100 years of entertainment history.  Given the age of the universe, some 14 billion years, 33 years per page seems about right.  But I’m open to suggestions.

Read More →

Take it easy

By Jack Sparacino
An old friend from work recently wrote to me from New Mexico about a trip he made to Walmart.  He thought I might get a kick out of seeing one of the newer products they had for sale, and he included a picture. The item is called “Batter Blaster.” It’s pancake batter in a pressurized can, made by a company in Austin, Texas. No time to mix up your own batter? Too much work involved?  Well, just heat up a griddle and spray away.  Minutes later you’ve got pancakes or waffles, and in four different flavors no less. Life is good, right?
I was so excited about this invention, I grabbed my buddy “Flip” (he loves pancakes) and we started brainstorming other new product ideas to help people avoid lifting any more fingers than absolutely necessary. Here are some of our initial concepts. We hope you like them, too.
1. “Batter Up.” This one was directly inspired by Batter Blaster.  But instead of using a whipped cream type dispensing system, we think we can save even more time by having the batter come in a pocket inhaler.  It could go right on your keychain and be used anytime, anywhere, something like some people treat asthma symptoms. No fuss, no muss, super low calories, plus we’re designing attractive little containers for it — including one that glows in the dark and therefore doubles as a handy map light!
2. “Mow-bot.” Too busy or tired to mow your lawn? Problem solved with the fabulous “Mow-bot.” This is a fully automated mower that can be programmed to open your garage door, cruise onto your yard and mow away in a precise, customized pattern.  When it’s finished, it propels itself back into the garage, turns itself off and lowers the door. All you do is add gas periodically.  But fear not, we’re thinking about an all electric model that even includes a lawn feeder and grass catcher in the rear.  Take that, R2-D2!
3. “Yacht-o-matic.” Here it is, folks, the inflatable, fully portable yacht we’ve all been waiting for. Pull the cord, and it inflates to full size (80 feet!) in just seconds. Pull a second cord, and the bar inflates as the ice maker is activated.  Pull a third cord and, well you get the idea.  All electronics currently come separately but we’re working on something built in (the “mad dash” kit).
4. “Dip-lo-matic.”  Too much trouble to go to school? Too much studying, too long a drive? Got all the schooling you need but just can’t find some of your old diplomas? This software lets you print your own degrees, complete with fantastic graphics such as photos of your very own self hard at work thinking about studying. Now just to keep everything on the up and up, each diploma automatically appears with the disclaimer “not a real diploma, we made this up” in bold letters in the lower right hand corner. Well, at least it’s good for parties and a few laughs. Invite some “diplomats.”
5. “Cliffhanger Notes.” Lots of us would like to read more, but it just takes so much TIME to really read a book carefully and absorb it. Our notes are really 5-7 simple bullet points on a single page, with all the valuable content and major lessons of any book (including those pesky college textbooks) summarized in 70 words or less.  Imagine “hanging up” an entire library in just a short PowerPoint file on your computer!
6. “Pants-o-Plenty.”  The idea here is so simple we’re absolutely sure it’ll be a big hit: reversible pants for guys who don’t want to do too much laundering.  We’re also considering special shirts with Velcro strips on the front that make it amazingly convenient to stick on a tie (regular or bow)… or even suspenders! (Jackets sold separately.)
7. “Joke in the Box.”  Too tired or laid back to learn jokes or borrow someone else’s stories and anecdotes? Relax, we’ve got you covered with “Joke in the Box.”  This is a potential iPhone app which includes jokes and stories told IN YOUR OWN VOICE, all at the push of a button. Amaze your friends and delight strangers you meet at parties.  (Just move your lips a little in synch with some of the sounds if you’ve got the strength and maybe no one will know the difference.)
8. “Baconinajiff.” Love bacon but hate to deal with cooking your own with all that grease and mess? Don’t even want to cook the kind that goes directly into your microwave because it takes too long and you have to sort of guess at the timing? Well, now you can have great tasting bacon-like goop (we’re trying to think of a more appealing term) in a convenient squeeze tube.
9. “Designated Patient.”  Too busy to see the doctor?  Can’t be hassled with those unpleasant tests and procedures?  Now you can just dial our special 800 number and arrange for someone else who’s roughly your age to undergo all that medical business for you. Sure it may cost an arm and a leg and not always be in your express interest, but we are trying to save you time and hassle, right?
10. “Quantitative Easement.” This one is for those of us who sometimes feel numerically challenged or just want to make sure they get a math problem or other calculation done right.  Call our other special 800 number and pose your question to a genuine mathematician — or at least someone whose “Dip-lo-matic” degree claims they are one — and put your tired mind at rest.  No problem too complex, no algorithm beyond us.  In fact, it’s as easy as one, two, three point six nine nine ninety nine. In fact, that’s about what we’ll charge!
So that’s our preliminary list of fabulous ideas. Here’s the only problem.  We’re excited about these new products but don’t have the time or energy to develop, produce or market any of them right now.  Maybe we need to write some software or find a cool gizmo to expedite the entire process.  You know, it would just “blast” ideas right through to sales and shipping.  As long as we don’t have to work too hard or often, it should be a snap. We’ll get to it, at some point.  Maybe.
But for now, we’ll just take it easy.  Pass the pancakes, please.

Read More →

Navigating the Graduation Maze

By Jack Sparacino
For some of us, growing up can seem almost like a race to graduate from school so we can begin our adult lives.  Lots of studying, lots of thinking about what may lie beyond. If we’re lucky, we get an uplifting, inspirational speech at graduation from someone accomplished, someone special. Someone who’s “been there, done that.”
Perhaps even someone who hints at all the learning and unofficial graduations that lie ahead. Not linear, not always predictable, sometimes confusing or troubling.  Humorous, fun, even rewarding, if you’re lucky. These graduations are rather like a maze to navigate through and, hopefully, to be inspired by.  And they start early in life, way before the great speech.  Here are a few that have come my way so far.
1. No more high chairs or phone books on your seat at the dinner table.  Hey, you’re tall enough to eat at the grown-up table without getting a boost.  And no more bibs!  (Now if there were only a way to steer around those pesky vegetables …)
2. Growing tall enough to ride roller coasters and other carnival rides.  Congratulations, the top of your head sticks up above the cutoff line drawn on the board placed before the ride. Get on board, hold tight. And don’t shrink even an inch or they might throw you off!
3.  Getting your driver’s license.  Well, the lessons paid off, now we’re getting somewhere.  Freedom, independence.  A photo ID.  Gas bills.  Traffic.  How much did you say the insurance is? Getting lost, figuring it out. The best music of your life on the radio or CD player.  Prom night. Yikes!
4. Being old enough to vote.  Eighteen — what a great age. The world is starting to treat you like an adult.  You have a say in elections. Your vote counts just as much as anyone else’s.
5. Getting that first “real” job. In my case as a line worker in a large assembly plant in Milwaukee, Wisc., in the summer after freshman year. Making stuff that customers need. Punching a time clock. Earning money for school.  Working with “grownups.”
6. Being able to afford some things that used to be out of reach. Back in my student days at The University of Chicago, going to the Museum of Science and Industry was free. Good thing, too, because I seldom had much “walking around” money, and going to the museum was a great break from the classroom. They now charge $15 general admission, which would be fine if I could remember where East 57th Street is.
And back then, by the way, a fully loaded hotdog from the street guy’s truck cost a dime.  They were great.  So did a soda and the daily paper. I don’t miss having to figure out whether to get the soda or the paper but not both.
7. Starting a family.  The first baby arrives. You and your spouse have arrived. The diapers, lack of sleep, magical developmental milestones, trips a few years later to places you’ve never considered going before (Chuck E. Cheese anyone?) and unbridled pride and joy have all chugged out of the station. Take a deep breath, that train isn’t turning back.
8. Being told that “life begins at 40.”  Hey wait a minute … that sounds like a marketing ploy. Too glib, too easy.  Eventually you figure out that living your life the way you really want to begins the day you make the decision to do it.  (Of course a plan would be nice, too, and some comfortable shoes.)
9. Getting that invitation letter.  You know, the one from AARP CEO Addison Barry Rand asking you to please consider joining this fine organization.  Hey, that’s for old people, I’m only … 50.  That’s ancient for a package of baloney, really old for a car, not very old for a person.  No, not very old at all.  But hey, thanks for thinking of me and I’d love to have another card in my wallet and some travel discounts.
10. Shades of gray. Noticing that most of your remaining hair is now gray.  Even in the back. Not a problem, just call it silver. Voila!
11. Getting senior discounts without even asking. This is actually fun the first time or two. Then maybe you start to wonder, “Do I look that old? Well, maybe I look distinguished anyway.”
Yeah, that’s it, distinguished.  You’re making it through the maze.  Congratulations, grab the camera.  And say “Cheese,” buddy!

Jack Sparacino has a Ph.D. in psychology from The University of Chicago.  He has published over 20 articles in psychological and medical journals.  He is retired from United Technologies Corporation and now lives with his wife, Jane and their two dogs on St. Helena Island.  His hobbies include fishing, clamming, crabbing, shrimping and writing.

Read More →

Stories from the Surf

By Jack Sparacino
My wife, Jane, sometimes tells people that I must have been born with a fishing rod in my hands.  Well, not quite, though I have been at it a long while and it is a passion. Some of my very favorite fishing experiences have been off the beaches and piers of both coasts, including acrobatic blues from the surf at Great Point in Nantucket and muscular bonito and kelp bass off the famous Malibu and Santa Monica piers in California.  Along with the wonderful scenery and fishing, I’ve been fortunate to meet some interesting people, both fishermen and “non’s” alike, and to harvest a string of memorable stories.  Collectively, they represent a box of unforgettable keepsakes in my mind.
That lucky string rolls along here.  Last year, my friend Steve Brotzman and I met more wonderful people while fishing at Hunting Island.  The first story here comes from an afternoon of surf casting, the second from the pier.  While we caught fish both days, these stories are really about the people we met and why they help make the Lowcountry fishing experience so special.
1. 110 in the shade. We picked a beautiful October day and headed out for Hunting Island beach.  Reports we heard first hand earlier in the week at the Nature Center of TUNA being caught off the beach piqued our interest. Frankly, though, it sounded too good to be true so we prepared for the usual whiting and small sharks. Which is mostly what we caught, along with small pompano and even a sand dollar.  We took a break after an hour or so to reassess our bait situation and grab a soda from the cooler.  Steve then ambled across the jetty to say hello to a family playing in the surf.
What a nice family, it turned out.  The father was mid-30’s, we estimated, as was his wife. Both attractive and fit, accompanied by their two children and two dogs. This “postcard” soon became more interesting as Steve learned that the man was born in the Dominican Republic, was now an active Marine, and was stationed here.  As the conversation unfolded, Steve noted that he was old enough to be the man’s grandfather.  “No, you’re really not,” our Marine noted, “my father was born in August, 1900.”  Wow, Steve thought, that’s incredible … “when did he die?”  “Oh, he’s still alive” said our Marine, “and just had his 110th birthday party back home in Mendoza.”
We marveled at this encounter as we headed home. Back at his computer, Steve did a little digging on Wikipedia and found a list of people known to be 110. A bit more sleuth work uncovered a web video of the birthday party for the man from Mendoza, which we watched with amazement and delight. The gentleman in question, Jose Lantigua Ramirez, has 24 children and (deep breath…) 1,200 grand, great grand, and great-great grandchildren.  He attributed his super longevity to perseverance and persistence. Judging from the video clip, which you can view on YouTube by typing in “Hombre dominicano celebra sus 110 anos de vida,” there must be a lot of additional mileage to be gained by being enveloped by the shade cast by a huge, rapturous family.  If a picture was ever worth a thousand words, this one sure proves the point. Happy birthday indeed, Senior Lantigua Ramirez!
2. Living off the land.  Our second story comes from the Hunting Island pier, one of our favorite places to play with the fish and meet people. Lots of tourists, easy to identify by their questions (what kind of fish/bird is that, is that a dolphin, what are you using for bait, etc.) or clothing (pink is usually a giveaway, as are Beaufort shirts though in my case a Beaufort hat is a necessity).  But also lots of locals and some semi-locals, like two ladies from Sun City.
We didn’t recall their names, but they were smiling from ear to ear at all the whiting they were catching (yes, Steve and I caught our share, too, though it was incidental on this perfectly lovely day.) They told us how well the fish would go with a dinner including the vegetables they grow themselves and how they loved to crab.  They were also excited about taking a class to learn how to throw a cast net so they could catch their own shrimp and baitfish for their crab traps.
We nodded and laughed in admiration as they explained how little they spent on food, though they planned to stop at Dempseys on their way home to pick up some supplementary produce and they also liked to stop in Beaufort for lunch.
They reminded me of a conversation we had with some of our son’s friends who came here to visit. Both Laura Amodeo and Rachel Stern dove right into the fishing and crabbing, marveling at the ready abundance of seafood in the Lowcountry. They even took it upon themselves to jump into the creek bed behind our house at low tide one day —in January no less. Within a half hour, they jumped back up over the bulkhead with a pail of husky mussels that they dug out of the mud.  “Livin’ off the land!” they shouted in unison. Then they proceeded to make delectable lemon squares using some of the Meyer lemons we grow in our back yard.
In subsequent trips back to the pier, we’ve met and chatted with an unending stream of interesting locals and visitors.  With such good company and gorgeous scenery to be had each time out, catching dinner takes a distinctly back seat. Well, not quite.  We always love the wonderful meals afterward, perfectly seasoned by those stories from the surf.

Jack Sparacino has a Ph.D. in psychology from The University of Chicago.  He has published over 20 articles in psychological and medical journals.  He is retired from United Technologies Corporation and now lives with his wife, Jane, and their two dogs on St. Helena Island.  His hobbies include fishing, clamming, crabbing, shrimping and writing.

Read More →

Magic in your pocket (and other lessons from Boston)

By Jack Sparacino
Our son Jack recently flew down from Boston for a weeklong visit.  He’s very grown up now at 26, with a fascinating job in a terrific city.  When he was a little fellow, it was always fun to teach him things. Now the tables are somewhat turned, and that’s fun too.  Here are a few of the lessons I was able to absorb while he stayed with us.
1. How old did you say I seem? We had perfect weather coming home from Savannah.  Jack drove and I got to ask questions about his flight and the music we listened to on the radio. After a neat blast from the 60’s courtesy of The Doors (“Hello, I Love You, Won’t You Tell Me Your Name”), we heard several songs that apparently came from another galaxy.  One that actually started to grow on me (did I really just say that?) was “Glad You Came” by The Wanted.  Jack laughed and agreed there might still be some hope for me musically joining the 21st century.  Some.
2. What did Elton John call them?  Showing my age again, we were talking over a lovely dinner at Saltus about how different people have their own individual profiles when it comes to those purchases they’re willing to splurge on a little — or not.  When I reminisced about only paying $6 for a pair of “blue jeans” when I was a freshman in college, and not liking to pay all that much more than that today, Jack politely informed me that the term was actually “jeans” or “denim,” not “blue jeans.”  A quick check in my closet revealed that they were all indeed blue, but I’m working on it as I note that 1968 came and went — along with my cool record collection. Which at one point included Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (blue jean baby, L.A. lady).
3.  Victory at sea.  When a friend invited us to take a close-up look at the Victory after a delightful lunch at Sweetgrass, we were treated to a wonderful tour of a venerable ship that was built in 1955.  Turns out that many famous people have been on this vessel, including Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Jack followed Frank down to the engine room and let me know that everything seemed shipshape. Just like our special relationship as we continued to cruise through a beautiful day.
4.  Magic in your pocket.  Jane and I have had cell phones for years, the same ones come to think of it.  You know, the kind that you recharge by turning the crank. When Jack said he was excited about picking up his new iPhone at Best Buy, I wondered what all the hoopla was about. One 15 minute demonstration later over lunch at the Back Porch and my brain was spinning. Those phones are like having magic in your pocket. We concluded that it’s not really a question of what they can do, it’s more a question of what they can’t do, and the answer is … not much. The camera alone is phenomenal, the applications are off the charts, and you can talk to it, for example to ask “the lady” to remind you to do something.  Oh yeah, you can also use it to make phone calls.
5. Living off the land.  Jack got another kick out of how readily one can put together a fabulous Lowcountry seafood treat. We were “living off the land,” he reminded me, as we prepared crab cakes and steamed clams from the shellfish we harvested.  I also learned that in his world in Boston, you simply can’t put too much garlic in a chicken and bell pepper dish. It was fun to watch him cook and walk us through a delicious recipe. Was this the same fellow who once covered a room with spaghetti from his highchair?
6. What’s a mojito?  When Jack ordered one of these before dinner one night, I asked him what that was.  Turns out it’s a popular cocktail that includes rum, muddled mint leaves, lime juice, club soda and simple syrup.  With those ingredients, I think it could also serve as mouthwash.
7. Not all good movies are supposed to be entertaining. In this case I learned that no, a movie doesn’t have to be “entertaining” to be considered an excellent film.  Jack managed to help me understand that just because watching “The Black Swan” made me uncomfortable, it was still a worthwhile and perhaps even valuable experience (a theatrical piece of “art,” as he put it).  Just don’t try to get me too excited about ballet.
8. The dog multiplier effect: 2 + 1 = 6. We have two fun little Yorkies and Jack brought his girl Rory with him.  That made three Yorkies, each on a hair trigger for anything out of the ordinary: squirrels or lizards on the porch, a dog barking on TV, you name it.  It was one chain reaction after another at times.  We all learned that the difference between 2 dogs in the house and 3 dogs is more like 4 than 1.
So after a week’s visit that seemed like a day and a half, our wonderful son is back in Boston and we’re left basking in the wake of another lovely family time.  If I did the math right, Jack left the Lowcountry three years or so the wiser and Jane and I came out a decade younger.

Read More →

Stopping to smell the roses

By Jack Sparacino
There’s nothing like the heat of summer to prompt you to slow down, pour some iced tea and smell the roses (or whatever’s blooming that doesn’t prompt a sneezing fit). Take a break. And philosophize about the really big stuff. The following items topped my list recently.
1. Who’s smarter, Harvard graduates or Harvard dropouts? I’ve always suspected it might actually be the dropouts, who were smart enough to get into Harvard in the first place but perhaps so gifted and creative that even extraordinary classroom and academic environments are too confining for them. I’m thinking of people like Edwin H. Land, R. Buckminster Fuller, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, William Randolph Hearst, and Robert Frost. Does anyone have comprehensive data on this?
2. OK, it’s 2012 for heaven’s sake, so which actually did come first, the chicken or the egg? Once and for all. Maybe we should convene a blue ribbon panel which includes representatives from the poultry industry (is Jim Perdue available?), the Deviled Egg Society of America, a paleontologist, an archeologist, a biologist … and of course a logician. How about we give them 48 hours to render their decision and a straightforward explanation. This will go a long way toward answering the age old question of whether to serve egg salad or chicken salad first at a picnic.
3. Why do politicians (only, it seems) carry their office titles for life? Senator so-and-so. Governor such-and-such. Shouldn’t the same courtesy be offered to former company presidents, team leaders, and various officers, for example? And how did General Mills, Colonel Mustard, Captain Crunch and Sergeant Pepper cut in line?
4. Given how the human spine is configured, with all those moving parts, walking upright can be pretty stressful over a lifetime. There must be a better design that would lead to fewer back aches.
5. I’ve seen ground black pepper advertised as an excellent, healthy antioxidant. But who could eat enough of it to realize a significant benefit? (I’m open to being peppered with suggestions on this one.)
6. How in the world do great mystery/thriller writers do it? Where do all those plot twists and diabolical characters come from? The number of terrific books that top-selling authors such as John Grisham, Nelson DeMille and John Sandford turn out is truly astounding. It’s a mystery to me.
7. Grade school kids often say they want to be professional athletes, teachers, nurses, firefighters, astronauts, etc. All good and understandable. But do ANY of them EVER say they’re looking into taxidermy? Accounting? Managing a convenience store? Engineering? Running a bowling alley? Becoming an entrepreneur or inventor?
8. Whatever happened to popular girls’ names from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? You know, like Linda, Becky, Jane, Sally, Jill or Debby. By the year 2020 or so, will all baby girls in America be named Emma, Sophia or Isabella? Britney or Courtney, anyone?
9. Cheese dates back 5,000 years or so (a good reminder to always check expiration dates). Curiously, crackers didn’t come along until 1792 when John Pearson made a rock hard bread product from just flour and water in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He called it Pearson’s Pilot Bread. It was a big hit with sailors because it lasted a long time and became known as hardtack or sea biscuit. In case anyone was wondering where the word “cracker” came from, Josiah Bent, another Massachusetts baker, deserves the credit. In 1801 he burned some biscuits in his brick oven. The burning biscuits made a “crackling” noise, hence the name. Mr. Bent later sold his business to the National Biscuit Company and the rest is history.
9a. Why do boxes of Cracker Jack not include any crackers? Maybe they should be called Popcorn Jack.
10. Lots of great songs have been written about trains (e.g., “City of New Orleans,” “Train Time”), cars (“Pink Cadillac,” “Little Deuce Coupe”) and airplanes (“Leaving On a Jet Plane,” “Bloody Mary Morning”). Seems like not enough songs feature bikes or buses. Anyone care to take a crack at snowmobiles?
11. What’s with Spanish moss not draping itself on pine trees or palmettos, don’t they like them? I don’t understand why the moss seems so overwhelmingly attracted to oak trees.
OK, break’s over. Time to check the crab trap. And then the cheese and cracker supply.

Read More →

Steamed: The 10 worst things since broccoli

By Jack Sparacino
Well, I try to give equal time in this column.  Having written a few months ago about the 10 best things since sliced bread, and at the urging of several readers, here is my initial list of the 10 worst things.  Plus a bonus. Don’t hesitate to let me know if I left out any of your “favorites.”
1. Horrid foodstuffs. We’ve all got our hit list, so here’s mine after over 60 years of careful taste testing: sea urchins, radishes, canned green beans, sake and flavored water.  Yeah, I’m willing to take my lumps from the American Radish Foundation and Vegetarians for Democracy. And the guys who flavor water. (By the way, I actually like broccoli, though it seems to have acquired an unsavory reputation in some circles.)
2. Computer viruses. Aside from the fact that they keep some technicians employed undoing them, these bugs create incalculable damage, waste and expense. The fact that they are often caused deliberately should condemn the perpetrators to a punishment that includes a permanent diet of putrid sea urchins and flavored water. With radishes for dessert.
3. Screaming ads on TV. When you can’t fast forward past them, they can make you wonder why you ever bought a TV in the first place. Maybe there’s research somewhere that shows they’re effective, at least for the hard of hearing or those who need to be shaken, not stirred.
3a. Visa card ad with lady climbing a huge rock formation. This one gets honorable mention. While there’s no screaming, the song lyrics are indecipherable and the music is grating and irrelevant. A shipping company with brown trucks that touts its logistics capability with a send-you-up-a-wall jingle very nearly beat out the lady, who was “way up there.”
4. Flying coach. Right, an easy one.  Well, it used to be fun to fly, anyway, before airlines decided they really wanted to emulate bus companies and leave customer service to some other guys. The silver lining here is that after being cramped and hassled for hours, one’s destination can easily go from good to great in comparison with the trip.
5. Diagramming sentences. Do English teachers still foist this weird and silly exercise on kids anywhere?  Is there anyone out there who learned to read, write or do just about anything better as a result of making a perfectly nice sentence look like a fishbone diagram?
6. Never being able to get to a Howard Johnson’s for their fried clams. OK, there may be a few folks out there, like my wife, who think they’re like eating rubber bands, but I continue to meet people who just crave a nice big plate of these wonderful sweet clams with a lemon wedge and a little fluted paper cup of tarter sauce.  Yeah, it has to be fluted.
7. Mosquitoes. Aside from providing a food source for small fish and maybe some birds, do mosquitoes have any real value?  Net net, their miniscule positives are outweighed by all the disease they spread and their nasty bites. But hey, it’s 2012 already.  Surely scientists can come up with something to get rid of them without poisoning the planet. Maybe someone with the name Skeeter should lead the team.
8. Yellow linoleum floors. In all fairness, I like floors. Large and small.  Hardwood, laminate, terra cotta, you name it. There’s just something about yellow linoleum that makes me feel like something bad is about to happen.  Maybe it’s a carryover from having had a polio shot on one when I was a kid.
9. Turtleneck sweaters (in a narrow “win” over suspenders). Now if you don’t need to wear a necktie, and that seems to be increasingly common, why would you choose to have something else grabbing at your throat? Don’t get me wrong, though. I do like sweaters.  And turtles.
10. Digital watches. Sure, they’re sometimes so inexpensive they’re almost disposable and they take all the anguish out of actually reading the hands on a regular watch. But many of them look cheesy and you shouldn’t need a kid to help you set the time or understand half the functions. I still have one that cost $50. On sale. It’s supposed to be good to 500 feet under water or some such thing but most of my dives are in the kiddy end of the pool. When the battery died, it could only be found by first locating the world’s tiniest screwdriver and then removing four minute screws. Sort of like performing brain surgery on a fly. The new battery, not cheap, caused the watch to flash incoherently and then go blank. So what time is it? Time to toss it out.
Now for the bonus: Toll booths. Yes, I’m the guy who once pulled up to a booth with barely 5 cents on me and had to grovel for assistance.  Toll booths seem to be set up on only the busiest highways and bridges and therefore add to an already strained commute.  Surely there’s a better way to raise the necessary funds. Maybe a gigantic bake sale?  Right, complete with toll house cookies!

Read More →