Archive | May, 2012

Souvenir State

30 May


Recently, my wife Diane and I spent the day aboard the Belle of Cincinnati with our daughter’s family. We all had a good time, even though the diesel-powered Cincinnati attraction isn’t a real steamboat, like our own Belle of Louisville, and despite the fact that it poured down rain the whole time.
When the four grandchildren started getting restless, Diane invoked the mandatory “indulgent grandparent rule” and said to the kids, “Let’s all go to the gift shop where grandpa can buy you a souvenir.” “What fresh hell is this?” I thought to myself.
Being crammed into a tiny gift shop with four active children who can’t make up their minds in trying to decide what overpriced trinket to buy wasn’t my idea of a pleasure cruise.
We ended up buying sailor hats for the two youngest children, post cards for the oldest — who collects them — and a snow globe for the middle girl, who announced that she was now officially collecting them. I even got into the spirit of things and bought an enameled pin for my collection. Diane got a deck of cards.
Later, I taught our oldest granddaughter a card trick. She liked it so much that we gave her the souvenir deck to take home. I had forgotten that we had just bought sailor hats, when we visited the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and toured a submarine. But let’s face it, can you ever have, too many sailor hats?
When I was a child, I collected souvenir pen knives. The fancy ones had compasses built into the handles and leather sheaths. When we went on vacation, my father would always buy me a new one, even though my mother thought they were too dangerous. Fortunately, the knives were about as sharp as a teaspoon. My main connection for pen knives were the Stuckey’s stores, immediately recognizable by their bright blue roofs. This chain, noted for their Pecan Roll, was founded by W.S. Stuckey Sr. in 1937, evolving from his Georgia pecan stand.
Although pen knives were my obsession, I was also fascinated by the many exciting souvenirs, especially the politically incorrect “Hillbilly” wood and corncob items and the “Made in Japan” Indian items. After a decline throughout the 1970s, I’m happy to say that Stuckey’s has seen a rebirth with W.S. Stuckey Jr. at the helm. There are now 200 franchised stores, including five in Northwestern Indiana.
People have been collecting souvenirs throughout recorded history. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great loaded up 3,000 camels and mules to cart back souvenirs from his visit to Persepolis, the capital of Persia. You can just bet that there were plenty of Persian sailor hats, snow globes and pen knives among that cargo.
Canadian writer Charles Gordon, author of “The Canada Trip,” says, “We live in a souvenir society, a world in which everything we do, everywhere we go, has to be commemorated.”
This mania has fueled the growth of the souvenir market. In America, it has expanded from small operations near tourist destinations into a billion-dollar industry.
Over the past few years, we’ve started visiting Myrtle Beach. The beachfront roads are lined with pancake houses and souvenir shops. T-shirts, beachwear and ocean-related souvenirs predominate.
The grandchildren like getting puka-bead necklaces and nothing quite says fun in the sun better than a shell covered jewelry box or picture frame. We got a Myrtle Beach thimble for a friend whose mother collects them. On our first trip, Diane bought a hand-woven sweet grass basket. I thought it was expensive at the time, but on our second trip, many of the roadside basket stands were abandoned and prices had skyrocketed. I only wish our retirement fund was doing as well. Perhaps we should invest everything in sweet grass baskets.
When we lived in Florida, the souvenir industry, like everything else, was dominated by the Walt Disney Company. Once, when our children were small, we took them to Disney World. We spent the whole day indulging them and spending, what seemed to us, to be a fortune. By the exit gate, a Disney employee was selling balloons in a last-ditch attempt to snag our final cent. Predictably, the children started insisting they had to have a balloon as a souvenir.  Although our sweet well behaved  babies seemed to have transformed into grasping monsters, we reluctantly relented. When we got to the van, the interior was so incredibly hot after being in the Florida sun all day, that the balloons immediately burst. Holding strings attached to their burst balloons, the overly tired children cried themselves to sleep on the way home. Those balloons must have been pretty good souvenirs after all, since I can remember it all so well.
I have a very kind and considerate colleague who often brings me souvenirs from his travels. I especially like a tie with the logo from the World Cup Cricket finals, but my favorite thing he has given me is a flintlock pistol that is really a cigarette lighter. While the gun is very cool, what is much more amazing is how he ever managed to get it through airport security from Pakistan. Our oldest son once brought me a walking stick from Norway that had a top like a pickax and airport security sounded the red alert. He was lucky to get back into the country — but a gun-shaped container full of lighter fluid evidently was no problem.

As opposed to the stuff I’m attracted to, Diane’s souvenirs tend to be practical, like the breakfast bowls and plates from England decorated with sheep and a Shawn the Sheep hot water bottle. We also have a modest collection of Christmas ornaments, commemorating things like visiting the Statue of Liberty, Fort McHenry and Washington D.C. Washington Post writer Sarah Ban Breathnach says souvenirs are “… the emotional touchstones, yet secret saboteurs of family vacations.”As vacation time approaches for many families, perhaps it is time to develop a souvenir strategy. Breathnach, proposes three basic rules: 1. Adequately budget for souvenirs; 2. Plan ahead by determining the type of souvenirs you might want to collect; and 3. Listen to your heart. Make sure there are no regrets by imagining how you’ll feel about the souvenirs you bought (and the ones you rejected) after you get home.
Perhaps my favorite souvenir is the flat heart-shaped stone I picked up in Sugar Creek on a trip to Turkey Run Park. It’s no penknife, but it is one of a kind and can anything be more authentic than a rock.

Based on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.


The Work Ethic

4 May


                 Last Saturday my wife Diane went with her friend Nancy to lunch at a teahouse in Seymour, about 50 miles away, leaving me unsupervised for most of the day. With nothing special planned, I suddenly found myself at loose ends. As the British novelist Susan Ertz once wrote, “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy…. afternoon.”
Only I knew what I should be doing, I just didn’t want to do it. I could see that a lot of people around town were making home improvements, completing chores or working in their yards. Diane says she’s been selling a lot of gardening books at the bookstore lately. We know many people who take their gardening very seriously and this was the kind of weekend when they would be hard at work.
It’s times like this when my sporadic sense of guilt kicks in and my father’s voice comes to me saying, “You are not  going to watch cartoons all Saturday are you? Don’t tell me you have homework to do, it’s July. Get out here and get to work.” The next thing you’d know I’d be knee-deep [literally]  in one of his weekend projects —  mixing concrete, heating up tar or squeezing into some insect-infested crawlspace, that would terrify even Indiana Jones.
His voice is the internalized critic that is the part of personality that Freud called the Superego. Such introjected parental values serve as a basis for our conscience, which produces guilt when we don’t comply with our beliefs about right and wrong. When these beliefs refer to placing value on hard work and diligence, people call it “the work ethic.” This is the conviction that hard work is morally beneficial and a sign of good character. It is related to what is often referred to as “The Protestant Ethic.” It was the belief held by some early Protestants that hard work and success in life were the mark of being one of the elect who were predestined to go to heaven.
Commenting on today’s workforce, syndicated columnist Dale Dauten recently wrote, “The work ethic is dead.” He claims that, “Younger generations in the workforce have killed it off.” It seems like previous generations always think that their successors have less of a work ethic than they did. I personally never worked as hard as my father and usually give in to my natural tendency toward laziness, but at least I feel kind of guilty about it. In my father’s generation calling someone a “bum,”  “gold brick” or “deadbeat” was just  about the worst insult you could make. I always thought it had to do with how they lived through the Great Depression, when work was so treasured and hard to get. I wonder if the  high and enduring unemployment rates of the current recession will lead to similar effects in the future. One thing is certain; the current generation of workers will undoubtedly criticize the next for being lazier.
To prove that I have at least some work ethic left and to assuage my Saturday guilt, I decided that I should  prioritize my efforts and work on the most pressing household chore. Deciding which chore tops the list, however,  can  be  a significant challenge in our household. Cartoonist Scott Adams, author of “The Dilbert Future,” says that we live in a “crumbling and defective world.” He then proceeds to list all of the things in his home that need to be fixed in some way, including his cat. Adams says he has adopted the “active neglect” method, primarily because he is far “too busy or clueless to fix anything.” Of course, the massive Stawar fix-it list puts Scott Adams’ paltry inventory of misery to shame.
Despite the myriad of possibilities, at this time of the year, spraying the perimeter of the house with insecticide, to keep the ferocious tics and ants at bay, seemed to make the most sense. I assumed that this job was going to be like most of the ones I conduct and involve spending large sums of money on tools and supplies at the hardware store. Just last week our oldest son replaced a towel rack in our  bathroom and it involved buying a $70 drill, drill bits and anchors, all to install a $13 towel rack. I had delegated the towel rack job to him, after I had previously put up  a matching toilet-paper holder. Using wood screws that were way too long, I had creatively managed to bolt a bathroom vanity cabinet drawer shut.
Fortunately this time, down in our basement, I was able to find several bottles of extra strength insecticide to spray around the house. The spray looks to be very toxic, but household chores are always much more attractive when they include some degree of risk. Comedian Rita Rudner says that men’s interest in barbecuing shows that they will even cook, if danger is involved. Even the slightly possibility of losing a limb or becoming asphyxiated, can turn an everyday chore into an adventure.
Contrary to my usual M.O., I actually read all the insecticide instructions and took all precautions as suggested, however, after spraying the poison around the house for a while, I must have inadvertently inhaled some of the fumes,  because I had a sudden coughing attack. I thought to myself, “Just great, Diane will come home and find me in the backyard laying in the grass flat on my back, like a big dead tic, overcome by my own poisonous concoction.” And that’s the only thing people will remember about me — “Oh, wasn’t he that guy who literally exterminated himself?” Fortunately, I was able to revive myself, with only negligible central nervous system damage, as far as I can tell.
With my token attempt to demonstrate some sort of work ethic finished, I spent the next hour scrubbing  off all the insecticide that I had spilled on myself. My final job of the day was to put a pork roast in the oven by 3 p.m. Regrettably my post-chore nap ran a little overtime and the roast was a little late getting in the oven.
But I did wash my hands again to minimize Diazinon contamination of the pork roast and to prevent some unfortunate chemical interaction with the Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue sauce.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune