Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Follow the bouncing ball

By Dick Hirsch

George looked a little odd on the basketball court, with his unkempt thatch of pure white hair, his skinny arms protruding from the sleeves of his New York Yankees T-shirt and his baggy cotton sweat pants. He didn’t look like much of a player, and, the truth was, he wasn’t interested in playing. At the age of 59, he knew his limitations, his strengths and his weaknesses.

His strength was in shooting a basketball. He had a wonderful eye for the basket and a soft, arching shot from virtually anywhere inside half court. Often he’d play with Howard, a man he met at the gym. They didn’t say much as they played their favorite game of HORSE. Their relationship existed for HORSE.

If you ever set foot on a playground, you surely remember HORSE. It’s an ageless contest. Two players are all you need. The first player chooses any spot on the court and tries a shot. If he makes it, his competitor must go to that very spot and try a shot. If player number two misses, he would be charged with an “H.” If he makes the shot, then he chooses his spot and shoots. It’s a simple game of you against me, and the game continues until one of the players has missed five shots and been marked with five letters, spelling out H-O-R-S-E. He is the loser.

George and Howard had plenty of time to play, so when one game ended, often another immediately began. It didn’t matter who won or who lost, it was just a friendly game with the goal of seeing that ball drop through the hoop. George appeared a little ungainly bouncing the ball on the court, but he had an unerring eye. Sometimes I would just stand and watch him as he moved slowly around to his favorite spots, bouncing the ball as he walked. Swish. Swish. Swish. It was a treat to see.

There was something different about George. I don’t know what it was. He never told me and I never asked him. I just knew he wasn’t normal, although as I have grown older it has become more difficult for me to define exactly what normal is supposed to mean. George wasn’t a really outgoing person; if he didn’t know you well, he’d speak only when spoken to. That’s sometimes the case with persons with disabilities. He took the bus to the gym, changed to his workout clothes, shot baskets, rode the exercise bike, took a shower and went back to his apartment. He enjoyed the easygoing camaraderie he found there.

George was sports fan. He loved baseball, followed the game closely, and talked often about the fortunes of his favorite team, the New York Yankees. He would often buy a copy of The New York Post to read the columnists and study the box scores. Baseball in general and the Yankees in particular were favorite topics, and I suppose that was the subject we discussed most often. I would frequently drive him home from the gym. In those brief trips, the talk would occasionally deal with semantics. George enjoyed trying to solve the Jumble word game published in the daily paper. When he was stumped, he sought my advice.

“Have you heard of the word forego, f-o-r-e-g-o?” he would ask. “What does it mean?”

He liked to test me.

“Years ago the Yankees had a great catcher. Have you ever heard of Thurman Munson?” Or, on another occasion: “The Yankees once had a famous manager from Buffalo. Have you heard of Joe McCarthy?”

George became ill last summer. Although he never discussed sickness, it was obvious he was growing weaker as the disease progressed. He missed some days at the gym because of the treatments, but still maintained a very regular schedule.

One Monday he said to me, grinning broadly: “I saw the Yankees play. I went to Yankee Stadium.”

Knowing how sick he was, I was very happy for him. He explained how he flew to New York, his first visit to the big city, stayed in a hotel, took a limo to the legendary stadium, all made possible by another person who knew George only from the gym.

“Ronnie took me,” he said. “He went with me.”

The Yankees lost that day, but that didn’t detract from the joy of the trip for George. It didn’t spoil the trip for Ronnie, either, since, like the rest of us, he realized that time was short. Last week they buried George in his navy blue satin Yankees jacket.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Are you being responsive enough?

By Dick Hirsch

I try to be a good citizen, paying my taxes, recycling my papers, cans and bottles, and adhering to speed limits whenever appropriate. But I’ve been dogged by one issue for years, an issue for which I have not been able to establish a policy that defines the response of a good citizen.

This has to do with wrong numbers, especially phone messages that are recorded in error on the voice mail of an unwitting bystander, not the intended recipient of the message.

For years I have been asking myself this question: What is the role of the good citizen in a case like that? What would be the response of a person just recently selected as a person of the year by the local newspaper, the Knights of Columbus or some other organization of high esteem?

Wrong numbers were not much of an ethical problem before answering machines became so widely used. If no one answered, it was as if the call was never made. If a person did answer, the caller would be told that he or she had dialed the wrong number, and that ended that. No problem. The caller tried again.

I have a direct line at the office and it seems to be a magnet for wrong numbers. What should I do each time I get a message for somebody named Miriam or Philip? Am I obligated to call back and say they left a message on the wrong machine? Or can I erase it and go about my business?

I have a theory about wrong numbers. I believe they are on the increase and I believe I know why. I have two reasons. The first relates to the profusion of cellular phones and the size of the keypads on those phones. They are small. Since most of the people making calls on cell phones are usually in a big hurry mode, it is simple to press the wrong key.

The other reason concerns demographics. We have an aging population and although those folks are generally in much better shape than their grandparents were, many of them are vision impaired and don’t really get a clear image of the keyboard on their phone, whether it is wired or cellular. That diagnosis became obvious to me when I first began getting calls from people seeking an appointment with a certain physician. The calls were quite regular. When I answered, I could tell them they had the wrong number. There were many calls, leading me to conclude he had a very busy practice.

I became curious about his specialty. Was he a cardiologist? A dermatologist? An allergist? I called the office and asked. I should have known.

An ophthalmologist...of course. His patients had trouble seeing the buttons on their phones. I was always polite with those callers, sending them in the right direction, until one day, the same guy called me three times in quick succession, wanting to make an appointment. He paid no attention to my explanations on the first two calls. The third time I told him to dial more carefully and hung up. Undaunted, he called me a fourth time and described me in terms I well remember, but cannot publish here.

So it goes with wrong numbers.

I get messages from people calling for a cab. I also get messages from patients who are waiting to be picked up at a doctor’s office.

“Is this transportation?” they ask. “This is Emma Brown and I called before.” That is somewhat typical. Emma leaves no number, so although I might be sympathetic with her plight, I cannot contact her. I picture her standing in the vestibule, hopefully peering up and down the street.

I often get messages from people complaining about a bill they have just received. They are upset and often angry, and want an adjustment, but I am in no position to help them. The other day I had a message inquiring about whether the office was open on Saturday or had evening hours.

Messages such as these have created a perplexing ethical concern for me. I am not the busiest person in town, but I am busy enough, and must I answer each of those misdirected messages?

Just the other day I had a message from a businessman who was calling a painter named Chris about rooms that needed painting. I was moved to call him back because so many painters, as well as plumbers, electricians and handymen, don’t return messages---even when they receive them.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

A vegetable that deserves your consideration

By Dick Hirsch

So there I was, defending the Brussels sprout against the attack of a small but vocal group of dedicated anti-vegites. I don’t see that as my role in society, and yet I usually root for the underdog, and the Brussels sprout is clearly one of the underdogs from the garden.

I have never understood why so many people refuse to allow the sprout to live the relatively blissful existence of a normal vegetable, but they won’t. They criticize its appearance, its aroma when subjected to boiling, its density, and its taste, among other things. Even worse, they all seem determined to make disparaging remarks about those who eat the sprouts.

As a gender, men have always had the reputation for being very selective---the operative word is picky---in matters involving vegetables. They view with suspicion anything green that is slightly off the popular menu screen. But with sprouts, it isn’t only men. Many women, too, are unwilling to give this lovely little treat a break. I’ve watched them in the supermarket, where the sprouts are always relegated to a very small display area on the vegetable counter, compared to carrots or potatoes. Most of the shoppers, both women and men, march right past them with no consideration.

I suppose it is a matter of taste, and, as you know, there is no explaining taste. Even as I mount a strong defense of Brussels sprouts, I know in my heart that my efforts, no matter how passionate, will change none of the narrow minds in my audience. I am defending the sprout as a matter of personal dedication, much as someone might oppose construction of a casino. The sprout deserves at least a chance to be tasted.

Even chefs discriminate against the sprout. Rarely, if ever, will you see a sprout offered in a restaurant. It’s a shame, since a dozen average size sprouts---more than I have ever eaten at one sitting---accounts for a measly 55 calories. But chefs must be aware of the likes and dislikes of their customers, so they refrain from cooking unpopular items. Sadly, the sprout obviously falls into that category.

I can actually remember my introduction to Brussels sprouts. I was about 12 years old, and, until that dinner, my vegetable selection was definitely limited and very average, with emphasis on peas and carrots, green beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and celery, with an irregular serving of beets, asparagus, cauliflower or squash. On occasions, certainly around St. Patrick’s Day, we had cabbage, so when my mother introduced Brussels sprouts I immediately saw the resemblance. I was probably uncertain at first, but, then as now, my curiosity outweighed my skepticism. I helped myself.

“They’re like little cabbages,” my mother explained.

Since her purchase of the sprouts was definitely experimental, she must have been very pleased with my response:

“They’re good,” I said.

And they are. Conveniently sized, they lend themselves to a variety of treatments, most often boiling, steaming or roasting. The national vegetable of Belgium, the sprout has a number of positives that are always disregarded by critics. For example, a cup contains 810 units of vitamin A, 423 milligrams of potassium, 112 milligrams of phosphorus and traces of thiamin, riboflavin and ascorbic acid.

It was just a few years ago that I saw how the sprouts are grown. In the market, they are either packed in a pint-size container or else dumped in a mound on a pile of ice. At the farm they grow on a stalk, the huskiest stalk in the whole field, with nature providing space for small, infant sprouts near the top of the plant, and burly, golf ball size sprouts near the bottom. Most mature plants are about 18 inches high with stalks that are at least an inch and a half thick at the bottom. They have to be cut using a chain saw. I’ve never seen a field of mature Brussels sprouts, but they tell me it is a sight to behold.

As I reflect on my years of vegetable eating, I cannot account for my universal affection for things green. My upbringing, as I have mentioned, was very average, with peas and string beans placed in the dominant positions. Seldom do I eat those anymore, unless they’re the only choice. My taste now includes broccoli, parsnips, zucchini, cucumber, mushrooms, peppers and okra, among others. I’m not boasting, but, with this as encouragement, if you are ever given an opportunity to try a Brussels sprout, I hope you will give it a chance.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

How I joined the largest and least selective group

By Dick Hirsch

Little did I realize the significance of the moment, that morning so many years ago, when I was inducted into membership in what is the largest and least selective organization in the US. Reflecting on it now, I realize it was one of those defining moments, a true milestone, but its importance was unrecognized at the time.

I got my Social Security number.

An office clerk bestowed upon me the red, white and blue card that is such a familiar document. I was still a teenager and I had been involved in a variety of moneymaking enterprises before, but they had all been cash deals, with no records kept. I shoveled driveways in the winter, cut lawns in the summer, delivered the weekly shopping news and worked for my Uncle Bob, packing orders of merchandise for shipment.

I was part of the cash economy, working off the books and no one seemed to care. Certainly the Internal Revenue Service couldn’t be bothered with people like me. But I was looking for something more corporate, a position that would last, something that would occupy me for the entire vacation period.

My friend, Mike, seemed to be settled into his job at the shipping department of an envelope company. I asked about the details of his job, how much he was being paid, and whether they needed anyone else. He told me they had not been hiring, but he agreed to inquire. That same evening he called to report that there was a vacancy and he had arranged for me to show up for an interview the following morning. I was ecstatic: although envelope sorting didn’t sound very challenging, the pay sounded very attractive.

The next day, a friendly woman looked me over, asked a few questions, and told me to complete a job application, which I did. She looked it over and immediately noticed a blank space.

“You didn’t fill in your Social Security number,” she said.

“I don’t have one,” I replied, suddenly concerned that I wouldn’t be hired because I lacked a number.

“So Mike sent me somebody who isn’t socially secure,” she said. “Tsk. Tsk. Well, we can take care of that.”

Things were simpler then. She went to a filing cabinet and returned with some papers, an explanatory booklet, and the card which would elevate my status as a wage earner and remain with me for the duration, and I mean the duration. The induction procedure was all over in a very few minutes; she handed me the card, I signed it, and put it in my wallet, without paying any attention to the numbers. Then she walked me back to the warehouse where she introduced me to the foreman, Rudy, a slender red-faced man wearing a Yankees cap, and explained that I was friend of Mike’s. Rudy put me right to work.

I spent the entire vacation there, sorting envelopes, by size and by paper type. Most were the familiar No. 10 size, but some were No. 6 3/4, either plain or with a cellophane window, and others were for social stationery, like the A-2 or the Dagmar. With the end of the school vacation my involvement with envelopes concluded, and as I walked out of that factory for the last time my enduring memento of my time in the envelope industry was my Social Security card.

I had not the slightest notion of its importance. Oh, sure, I understood that sometime in the distant future the government would send me a check every month. But who could have imagined that I would ever be able to memorize those nine random digits and recite them on demand years later? In addition to my name, that Social Security number has become my most distinguishing and identifiable feature, known not only to the government but also to countless other businesses and organizations. As students, we worried about conformity and about having our status reduced to a number. There is no sense worrying about that anymore.

Just the other day I needed a service call and the person asked me a few questions, the final one being this: “What are the last four numbers of your social?”

I recited the numbers.

“That’s not correct,” she replied.

“Of course it is,” I said.

“It’s not what we have,” she insisted, sounding suspicious.

I tried to convince her that I was right and she was wrong. I failed. Will I be investigated? I’ll keep you posted.