National Haiku Day


Happy National Haiku Day!

According to the online calendars, today is National Haiku Day (also National Bat Appreciation Day). A haiku is a form of short, traditional Japanese poetry.  Haiku generally follow a set number and pattern of beats (5 accents, then 7, then 5), and celebrate everyday life.

I am a terrible long-form poet, but I can manage to come up with short, concise observations of daily life.  And so, in honor of this day, I present three original works.


Longing for spring break, A student whines at teachers Who hold him captive.

A delighted bee Dances between pink blossoms Waving in the wind.

Brightly-colored ducks Zig-zag through silver-blue waves Beneath the full moon.


Happy spring, everyone!


A new reality TV show

Let’s all applaud the newest reality TV show . . . Surviving the College Dorm Room Race!

At least that’s my idea for a new show, after spending the weekend dodging around parents and their almost-adult children shopping for back to college supplies. I honestly thought one family in Target was about to start a full-out brawl in the towel aisle.

Furnishing a dorm room seems to have evolved into a major production since my college years. Families with a set budget waste a portion of that budget racing from Target to Bed Bath and Beyond to Best Buy to the malls, all so their sons and daughters can have the latest, greatest, color-coordinated and stylish dorm room ever. They work their way down a long list of absolutely essential, can’t survive without them furnishings and techie-toys in a wide price range. And if they’re lucky, they survive the experience with part of their sanity still intact.

Saturday, I stopped into three different Targets, two Bed Bath and Beyonds, an organization store at the mall and Best Buy. I was looking for things to use in reorganizing and redecorating my apartment — not a major overhaul, simply some updating of towels, rugs, candles, etc.

As soon as I hit the housewares section of the first Target, the fun began. Race-walking down the bedding aisle, led by their daughter, came a couple, each with a half-full shopping cart. The girl had her tablet out, and was comparing — well, at first I thought she was comparing prices, but when I passed her I glanced over and saw she was actually looking at a picture of a pile of pillows and a throw (I think). Coordinating, I presumed, with her future roommate. Before I got out of the aisle, she’d dumped two sets of sheets into her Dad’s cart, on top of a duvet, at least four pillows and a mattress topper. I shook my head, remembering the narrow beds at Penn State that barely, just barely, allowed for one pillow and a narrow quilt.

That family and I met up again at checkout — they were ahead of me in line. The total for the bedding, lamps, plates, towels, rugs, wallart, oven and assorted knick-knacks? Seven hundred plus dollars!

As they walked out, the daughter told them they had to go to Best Buy next — for her TV and a new Roku.

At least that family wasn’t arguing, and seemed rather well-organized, compared to others I saw throughout the weekend. The next Target had the family arguing in the towel aisle — the daughter wanted Fieldcrest towels, the parents were getting her the Target brand and she was red-faced and whining over how they were going to embarass her in front of her new roommate. Her father was getting a bit red-faced himself while obviously biting his tongue. Her mother wasn’t holding back, telling her daughter if she wanted the other towels she could pay for them herself in a very shrill voice with extremely-colorful language. Clearly, they had overdosed on the back-to-school shopping safari.

The story was repeated everywhere I went that weekend. Parents and children, with and without lists, all armed with Smartphones and tablets, color-coordinating with roommates’ decor while hopping from store to store to compare product offerings and prices.

And every family was buying multiple cartloads of things to furnish the dorm room.

Really? That much stuff? I would love to see the size of these dorm rooms. My room at Penn State was something like 8 by 12 feet (if that), into which was already squeezed two large stationary desks, two closet units, two wall-mounted side cabinets and two narrow twin beds. There was barely room to walk down the aisle between the two halves of the room, much less fit all the things students today ‘need’ to survive their college experience.

I didn’t buy that much to take with me when I went to Penn State, largely because I knew I wasn’t going to start out in a dorm room. There were so many freshmen my first year at college that some of us ended up housed in study lounges. Since I was going to have to move in a few weeks, I bought the minimum amount of things I would immediately need. Quilt, pillow, clothes and school supplies, a few personal books.

A month later, I was assigned a room across the quad in Pennypacker Hall, and I was able to move everything in just one trip. At that point, my new roommate and I looked at each others’ stuff. My blue primary-colored quilt coordinated with her yellow primary-color quilt and the multi-colored rug she already had. We had a color scheme.

I headed out to the stores and bought more throw pillows to mix and match with hers. She had a coffee maker and a hot plate; I picked up a toaster and mini-crock pot. I added a set of plates and a couple of glasses for me, some plants in pretty pots and most importantly, more posters of sunny beaches (come January at Penn State you need reminding that there are warm places in the world). On the weekend, my parents gave us a sound system to go with her mini-TV, and we were set. My total bill for that dorm room was probably half what that first family spent just in Target, and I managed it in just two stores (one for the posters and one for everything else).

What really struck me, though, was the different treatment some of these students gave their furnishings and their school supplies. At the last Target, while I was looking over micrwaves (mine having died), there was a guy comparing different models of coffee makers. He was rather obsessively looking up product reviews on his smartphone when his mother came over and asked him what type of pens she should get. His answer? Anykind, ’cause he didn’t think he’d be taking that many notes.

My hope is that he meant he would be taking notes on his tablet, not writing them down, but I’m rather afraid that he, like other students I saw this weekend, was more concerned with his surroundings than his classes.

Meanwhile, I really think someone needs to turn this whole experience into a reality TV show. Assign each set of parents a budget, give them an excessively-long list of required items and then send them off with their excited offspring. Add in a time limit for shopping, create some sold-out product roadblocks and sit back and score the hilarity.

Why I shop online . . .

Contrary to the opinions of Mainstreet and the media, I do not shop online to avoid paying a sales tax on my purchases.

Congress, as you may or may not know, is considering a bill that would require online websites over a certain dollar volume of sales to collect sales taxes from their customers. The bill passed in the Senate; the House may or may not take up the matter later this year.

The media largely seem to refer to this bill as ‘the internet sales tax’, and people discussing the matter are screaming that the government is imposing yet another new tax on them. For the record, the tax already exists; it’s called a use tax. If you buy something in another state, and bring it home, you owe your state the use tax on that item. The tax is the same rate as the sales tax; the difference is that you’re supposed to remit it to the state, rather than give it to the retailer so he can send it to the state.

Most people don’t pay the use tax — they don’t know about it, can’t figure out how to report it properly, or just decide not to pay it. Nevertheless, it’s a real tax that people owe when making a purchase out of state.

However, even if the bill passes, it won’t stop me from shopping online. For me, the ‘lack’ of a tax being imposed on my online purchases is not the main reason I shop online. It’s not even on the list of reasons why I shop online.

Selection. At the top of my list is selection — or rather, the lack of selection in regular stores. I want to purchase a new laser color printer-scanner. Over the last week, I’ve browsed through Best Buy and Target, Staples and Office Max, even stores specializing in computer equipment. Each store offered, at most, three or four models — a low-end, a middle, and a high-end (extremely expensive) model. When I search online, I come up with dozens of models, at all prices, with a variety of features. If I can get a model with the features I want, and only those I want, why would I buy something that has vastly more features than I need, or settle for a model that doesn’t allow me to do everything I want to do?

Unique products for my tastes and styles. I live just outside Philadelphia, and so I have access to numerous department and specialty stores. Yet I often can’t find the things I want in the style I like. Last summer, I was looking for a simple necklace to go with a new outfit — I wear mostly sterling silver and natural stones. I am not kidding when I tell you I visited four department stores, and five other chain stores, and saw the exact same necklaces in every store. I hopped onto Etsy — and found my necklace in five minutes. Okay, so I had to wait two days for it to be delivered — I didn’t mind, since I had something I wouldn’t see on twenty other women at the party.

Easy, unlimited returns. When I buy something online, most websites have very open-ended return policies, as opposed to the stores’ ever-more restrictive policies which limit the time to return an item and set numerous conditions on that return. If I wear a pair of shoes, and the heel breaks off after three wearings, I can send it back to the site and get a new pair of shoes. Contrast that with my last experience trying to return a defective pair of shoes to a department store — I was told to contact the manufacturer; the manufacturer told me to take the shoes back to the store. I ended up tossing them out.

Saved Time. Shopping online, once I’ve established an account with a site, saves me time. Also gas, but mostly time. Let’s use Star Wars action figures as an example. The last few years have been miserable for collectors — Hasbro’s distribution problems resulted in stores getting new figures only occasionally and randomly. You could spend the day driving from Target to Walmart to Toys ‘R Us, and the only thing you would buy would be more gas for your car. Or, you could hop online to Entertainment Earth or Brian’s Toys or any of a dozen other sites and find exactly what you wanted in just a few minutes.

Price. Price actually ranks fairly low on my list. Yes, there are lower prices on some things online. I’ve also seen higher prices online. I like Essie nail polish. I can buy it for $7.79 at Target. Online, I usually find it for a flat $8-9.00. Yet I now buy it online — because the stores only carry some of the colors, and the ones that I want are generally not in the stores. Same scenario with Star Wars toys, or certain shoe lines. You can find your item for the same price — or cheaper or more expensive — online. The price disparity all depends on the website, the item you want to buy and the availability of the item in stores in your area.

I have many other reasons for shopping online, but those are the main ones. As stores carry less and less merchandise, I end up shopping more and more online. A case in point? Barnes and Noble. I used to buy a lot of books at Barnes, as well as magazines and endless cups of coffee. However, as the years have passed, Barnes has decreased both the number and types of books they carry, branching out instead to selling toys and other items. I’ve been told that they took this step because of decreasing book sales, as a result of online purchases for Amazon’s Kindle and their own Nook.

However, for me at least, it’s led to purchasing even more at Amazon. Now, some of that is because I’m digitizing my entertainment, to clear up clutter in my home. But it’s also because I can’t find what I want at Barnes anymore. I spot a new release in the mystery section — but it’s the third book in a series. Unless the author is immensely popular, Barnes will not have the earlier books. To read them, I’m going to have to go to Amazon (I already had Kindle before the Nook came out, and so I keep buying there rather than have two different sources for my novels).

And if I have to buy books one and two online, I might as well wait and get book three there as well, defeating Barnes’ purpose in carrying less books. Instead of cutting back on their overhead by stocking fewer books, it’s cost them a sale.

Nevertheless, the Mainstreet retailers are pushing for passage of the ‘internet sales tax’ bill, because they see it as ‘leveling the playing field’ between stores and websites. If I’ve understood their statements to Congress and the media, the stores believe this bill will result in people returning to shop in stores, as opposed to online, because they’ll have to pay the sales tax wherever they buy something, and therefore they might as well shop in a local store.

However, if and when the bill passes, I’ll still be shopping online for many things. For all the reasons I listed above, I often have an overall better shopping experience online than in a store.

And that is not good news for Mainstreet.

How to display a U.S. flag

Today is the start of National Flag Week, and I just discovered I’ve been wrong about how to display the U.S. flag.

I was a mission today, to find a flag bigger than the child-sized handheld ones you see along parade routes, but small enough that I could attached it to the railing of my balcony and let it fly. As I drove from store to store, I kept hearing the same news story — how to properly dispose of an unwanted or damaged flag. For the record, the flag is apparently meant to be cut, and then burned, according to certain ceremonial procedures. I came away with the impression that it’s best in these circumstances to just contact the Boy Scouts — they know what to do.

However, the reporter never mentioned the correct way to display the flag, and I kept catching snippets of people’s conversations in the stores, with comments ranging from whether the flag could be flown at night to how best to combine it with another country’s flag.

So I came home and did some snooping on the Internet. And found that my understanding of how to display the flag in certain situtaions was completely incorrect.

The flag should be illuminated when flown at night.

I think most people know this one. It was also the subject of a very funny conversation overheard at a Home Depot.

A couple was looking at various types of solar lights. I assumed they wanted them to light up their patio or walkway, but they kept arguing about how much light they needed and how high up the lights would shine. Then I heard the woman tell her husband “I told you that pole was too tall!” Seems he got a little ambitious with the height of their flagpole; none of the lights stocked at the store would shine high enough to illuminate the flag.

Drive in the Philadelphia suburbs and you’ll see a lot of places with flags flying in the night. Not just police and fire departments, township offices and schools, but apartment complexes, churches and many private homes. I pass a very patriotic house on my drive back from work — not only does the homeowner have what looks to be at least six floodlights shining on the large flag before his house, he’s also wound red-white-and-blue rope lights around the flagpole for added emphasis!

The flag should not be flown in inclement weather.

I was wrong about this one, but frankly, this rule makes no sense to me.

The rule says the flag should not be subjected to weather damage, and so only weatherproofed flags should be flown in bad weather. But think about it for a minute. The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem, celebrates our flag’s ability to continue flying throughout a night filled with a massive British artillery bombardment. Come on, what’s a little rain or snow compared with the fire, smoke and shrapnel generated by cannon shells? Yet, the rule says we should remove our flags in the face of inclement weather unless they are weatherproofed.

People do take down their flags, but usually only when a hurricane is approaching, along with removing anything else that could become an airborne projectile in high winds. It’s a sensible precaution — when I lived in Massachusetts, a flag pole snapped in high wind during a nor’easter and ended up punching through my apartment wall. But as a general matter, people seem to leave their flags up through rainstorms and blizzards, regardless of whether they’re the weatherproof variety. I’ve noticed several homes that have replaced their flags this spring, after the old flags were flwon through the winter storms.

The flag does not need to be higher than the flags of other nations.

I was wrong about this one, too.

Growing up, I can remember my uncle and grandfather muttering whenever they saw the U.S. flag mixed in with other flags. “No respect” was the politest phrase they would use. They were particularly incensed when the other flags were the same height as the U.S. flag, so, naturally, I believed that the U.S. flag’s pole should always be higher than the poles bearing other country’s flags.

Nope. I checked several websites, including the site maintained by the Veterans Administration. The pole holding the U.S. flag does not need to be higher than other poles. It should be on the right-hand side, if there is a group of flags, but the height doesn’t need to be greater than that of the other flagpoles in the group. In fact, two websites (including the VA site) mentioned that it’s international custom to have all the flagpoles be the same height in times of peace.

The flag should always be on the right-hand side.

I wasn’t aware this was a rule, but thinking about my neighborhood, I can see that most people follow it already.

The U.S. flag, when displayed crossed with another flag, should always be placed on the right-hand side of the display, with its pole in front of the pole holding the other flag.

In this area, a lot of people display the U.S. flag along with another flag, such as the flag for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The “Don’t Tread on Me!” flag is also quite popular, for some reason. And of course, people celebrate their ethnic heritage by displaying the flag of the country from which they, or their ancestors, came — Ireland, Italy, Mexico and, surprisingly, Canada appear to be extremely popular places of origin for my neighbors. And in every display that I can recall, the U.S. flag is always on the right-hand side.

Never use the flag as bunting.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone try to use the U.S. flag as a simple decoration.

Drive anywhere in this area and you’ll see the U.S. flag adorning railings, fences and doors, either hanging straight down or unfurled and stretched out to be fully visible. I didn’t know that, while you can hang the flag in this way, it must always be unfurled, and should never be displayed in a folded or bundled manner. Every website I visited made the same point: bunting is available for use in patriotic draped decorations. The flag is not a decoration, it is a symbol, an emblem, of the country.

So there are the most common rules for displaying the U.S. flag. That said, I still didn’t succeed in today’s quest. Every store I went to seemed to have two sizes of flags — a sea of the child-sized hand-held ones, and shelves of extremely-large flags meant to grace the flagpoles of suburban Philadelphia. Perhaps when we get closer to Independence Day I’ll find one suitable for my balcony.

I just have to remember to bring it in at night.

A Public Thank You to Kind People

I want to say a public Thank You to some very kind people I’ve met in the last two days.

First, to the woman who gave me directions. I was coming back to Philadelphia from my company’s New York office on Tuesday, when I was diverted onto a new highway. I should have been on 287 south, but was instead shunted onto 17 south.

Route 17 was a — well, a very confusing road. Multiple lanes of traffic going both north and south separated by a high concrete wall and lined with strip malls, box stores and yet more strip malls. There were no road signs telling me how to turn around and head in the opposite direction. Google Maps was no help — it just kept rerouting me to my destination using two-lane roads, doubling the length of time it would take me to reach my home.

Finally, in desparation, I pulled into the parking lot of a Bed Bath and Beyond, and went into the store. I got in line, and explained to the clerk that I was lost and trying to get back to 287.

The woman in line next to me promptly put her purchases on the counter, led me out of the store and proceeded to give me simple, clear directions how to zig-zag through the parking lot to a side road that would get me to 17 north, and back to 287. Five minutes later, I was back on the correct road home. I’d have never figured it out without that shopper’s help so THANK YOU!

The next day, I met another helpful woman at Lord and Taylor’s.

I was in Philadelphia at the time of the building collapse, and between that unfortunate accident and local road construction, it took me close to three hours (in a hot car with no water to drink) to get back to my office. The delay meant I was at work until quite late and hadn’t eaten dinner. As I drove home, feeling utterly exhausted, I realized I needed to stop at Lord and Taylor’s to return something.

And so I went to the store — on the first day of a giant sale. Every checkout counter was jammed with shoppers waiting to pay for their purchases, and there I was, with my small return. The line inched along, the woman in front of me reached the counter, and then she looked back at me. I had a little bag. She had two armfuls of clothes, and more held at the desk. She smiled at me and then unexpectedly told me to go ahead of her. I was out of the store five minutes later, and home twenty minutes after that, where I promptly crawled into bed. Again, to that woman — THANK YOU!

So often, with the daily stress of modern life, we forget that kindness towards others does not have to take a lot of time or effort from us. Those two women spent just five minutes to help a total stranger. It didn’t cost them any money, didn’t require them to go out of their way, just to briefly pause what they were doing and offer their help. But to the person receiving that help — me — it made all the difference in the world. Their kindness saved me so much time, and meant I could get home, and go to sleep, at a decent hour at the end of two very tiring days.

It makes me wonder — just how many times have I had the chance to offer help to someone else, and failed to do so?

You Can’t Take Back Hate

My mother taught me an important lesson when I was a teenager.  You Can’t Take Back Hate.

On this anniversary of 9/11, we should be remembering and honoring the Americans who selflessly tried to save their fellow citizens, some of whom paid for their valor with their lives.  The firemen and policemen who went into the Towers, the soldiers at the Pentagon who tried to help their trapped comrades, the ordinary people who went to work, or got on an airplane, only to be caught up in the events of that day, and who did their best to help their coworkers survive, or were able to prevent another plane from destroying the White House or Capital Building.

And many of us are doing that.  But so many others, as has become more and more common in these past few years, are taking any opportunity to make hateful, nasty comments on otherwise respectful stories, advocating their viewpoints as to who and what is at fault for whatever is their particular cause of the day.  Just as they do every day, on blogs and news stories.

After 9/11, we were not Red or Blue, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, north or south or western states.  We were Americans.  We stood together, ready to defend our country and do whatever it took to help our fellow citizens.  Sadly, that didn’t last long.  Cracks crept in.  Sides were taken.  Today, it seems that no matter what subject you raise — the economy, religion, sports, real estate, the weather — people can find a way to blame those on the opposite side of their narrowly-defined ideological spectrum for the perceived problems of that subject.  No one wants to have an honest discussion about ways to solve our problems.  All we want is to blame someone else.  Preferably in the most vitriolic, venomous words we can find in the dictionary.

Compromise is a word not even to be considered in these conversations.

We seem to have forgotten how our country was formed.  The men who gathered to declare our Independence, and later to write our Constitution, came from different backgrounds, religions, social brackets, ideological convictions.  They wanted different things to be incorporated into those fundamental documents.  But they compromised — they yielded on things important to them so that they could achieve that over-riding, important goal of declaring us a new country, independent of Great Britain, and establishing us as a country and government of, by and for the people.

We couldn’t do that today.  Not when all we seem to want to do is spew hateful words about anyone who doesn’t match our particular set of beliefs and expectations.  And all that happens when you do that, ultimately, is that you hurt yourself, and the ones you love.

When I was 17, I had an argument with my mother.  I don’t even remember exactly about what we were fighting — but I remember snapping at her, in my superior, know-it-all voice, that it was her fault we were so poor that I couldn’t buy a dress but had to wear what she made for me.

And then I watched my mother start to cry.

I tried to apologize. I did.  She just looked at me and told me that once you say something hateful, you can’t take it back.  Then she walked out of the room.

We never spoke about that day again.  I wasn’t brave enough to ask her if she forgave me for what I said.  And now, years after she died, I can’t.  All I can remember is what I said, and the look on her face.  I can’t take back those hateful words, and they festered between us, unresolved, for years.

To anyone who reads this entry, I ask you to do one thing.  The next time you want to make a snippy, arrogant, nasty comment about anything, before you press the send button, before you open your mouth to yell at someone, whether it’s something political or religious or just the merits of your college football team  — Please. Stop.  Think.

Would you say those words to your mother?  Your husband?  Your son?

Would you want someone to say it to you?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t express your opinion.  I’m asking that we find a way to have a civilized, respectful dialogue.  In the spirit of those who gave their lives for this country, on 9/11 and in every war we’ve ever fought.

Wish I’d thought of it. . .

I wish I’d thought to do this when I registered my car!

The evening rush hour today in the ‘suburbs’ of Philadelphia was an 8 (on a scale of 10).  Between the frigid temperatures, which created random puddles of ice on which cars were slipping, and the suicidal deer (four of them jumped in front of my car in the span of 13 miles), the drivers on my commute home were short-tempered and generally nasty. 

Including the man behind the wheel of an industrial-sized pickup truck, who tailgated me for 8 miles, attempting to keep less than 3 inches of space between our bumpers.  We finally caught a red light, and when we’d stopped (without the truck hitting my car), I glanced at the license plate on the car in front of me.  I’m not joking, the plate read:

“U R 2 C L O Z”

I want that plate.  Wonder if I could buy it from the owner?