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Archive for May, 2012

In the last eighteen years, I have driven half-way across the country at least once if not twice a year.  I’ve never been impeded by snow storms (although I’ve come close on more than one occasion, in December, which is to be expected, since my intended destination is somewhere in the heart of Massachusetts) and I’ve managed to miss tornadoes (but seeing one, I suppose, is only a matter of time since part of my travels takes place in that scary patch of the country referred to as “Tornado Alley”).

During those years, there have been different states that I’ve designated as “the worst to drive through” and they tend to change with time. For the longest while, Pennsylvania held that distinct title. It takes forever to drive through Pennsylvania, mostly because it’s a long state (although I don’t enter in Pittsburgh, nor do I have to go through to Philadelphia, but close enough) and there’s no way to do it much faster that six hours. It’s pretty, but it’s unending. Only the anticipation of the tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike tends to break the monotony. Truck traffic in Pennsylvania tends to be overly thick, but the closer one gets to the East Coast–mostly New York–the heavier the truck traffic tends to be.

Trucks, for whatever reason, seem to want to pass each other on uphill grades, which means everyone else has to slow down from 65 to 50 and even 45 while the two behemoths lumber upwards to the point where the passing truck finally has to pull over, defeated in its attempt to pass. Of course, that’s the same truck that goes whizzing past all traffic at 75 on the downhill side of the mountain.

But I digress.

Ohio, recently, has taken over as “the worst to drive through” mostly because I’ve noted that I can’t seem to get through that state (all 229 miles of Interstate 70) without having to slow down–or pull over-due to torrential rainstorms. Of course I prefer the rain to snow or a tornado but it still seems as if the weather over Ohio is just constantly conducive to bursting into rain each time I have to drive through. Columbus (or the outskirts thereof) happens to be just about the half-way mark when I make this cross-half-country journey, so there is no avoiding Ohio. The “southern route” (through Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, et al) is a longer trip. Trust me; I’ve made this trip so often and for so long, I know the quickest way there, where all the rest areas are (unless they are under construction and closed) and usually where all the speed traps are (not that I have to worry about that–a lesson learned a long time ago).

Sometimes Illinois wins–but only for the duration of one trip, and only because of slow-downs due to construction. Indiana is basically under construction this summer, so be prepared for slow-downs throughout that state.

Missouri can be just as boring to get through as Pennsylvania, but there’s always the World’s Largest Chair to look forward to–or the factory discounts on knives, or the wooden bowl factory, the Merimec Caverns (try avoiding the advertising for THAT if you can), or the emus by the side of the road just outside the city limits of Cuba. There’s Rolla to look forward to (pay attention to the lowered speed limit of 60 here, because the police pay close attention to it). And of course Waynesville, home of the “Tigers” is definitely a milestone, as is Eureka where Six Flags is located. (Please do NOT try to get a quick drink at the McDonalds off the side of the Interstate in Eureka. Your children will be adults before you can get through the drive-thru–wait another couple of exits and things will be much easier for you.)

New Jersey is funny, but we don’t ever spend more than 30 minutes driving through it, so it’s easy to overlook; plus, it’s New Jersey. Well, and that’s where the traffic really starts to pick up, depending on the time of day. It’s definitely East Coast, fast and furious, everyone going 10 over the speed limit and looking at you like you’re insane if you try to stay at the speed limit. There’s an accident just waiting to happen–and I often get “nearly clipped” by some idiot slipping into my lane just inches in front of me. Is there an award for that? Is that why they do it?

I’m going to pass on New York, because that’s a discussion that could go on for days.

So. Then comes Connecticut. I think that’s an ancient Indian word that means “you’ll never get through this 100 mile stretch of land without long, agonizing delays, many pot-holes, much construction, and white men who don’t know how to merge.”

They even have signs in Connecticut–those neon signs that flash at you, the ones that you’d miss what they had to say if you were actually able to drive the 55 MPH speed limit. But you can read them, well, because as soon as you cross the border into Connecticut (and it doesn’t matter which one–whether you come through on Interstates 84 or 95) the traffic will bog down to a crawl, often coming to a complete stop, and the most you and everyone else can do is inch forward, hoping for a break soon, hoping that you won’t spend all 100 miles crossing the state doing 5 miles per hour.

Oh yes, but those signs, as I started saying. They point out, at Exit 2, that for the next 20 miles, until Exit 27A, traffic will continue this way. Get used to it. Suck it up. And the signs laugh at you (I’m convinced, even though the smarter among you will point out that signs are inanimate objects and cannot laugh. Well, all I can say is you have never been to Connecticut and have never seen the signs).

The sad part is: there is no reason for the slow-downs, for the crawling traffic, for the bumper-to-bumper madness that is this small, up-scale state. When the traffic finally does break up and you can actually drive that speed limit (or more), you don’t swing past twisted wreckage, dead bodies, fire engines screaming, a plethora of cops and cop cars and State Police. Nope. There’s nothing. Nothing to indicate why you had to spend the last 45 minutes and 8 miles being forced to listen to some jerk in the wide open truck next to you blaring Janis Joplin or even worse the constant thrum of hip-hop overplayed by some rich white kid who doesn’t even understand the lyrics.

Nope. Just a line of people who obviously don’t know how to drive.

Connecticut is like that. So I’m forgiving Missouri and its boring 299 miles of hilly Ozarks and random speed limits around “major” cities; I’m forgiving Illinois and Indiana for being under construction (but still allowing for normal speed limits); I’m forgiving all the damned rain that plagues me across Ohio; and I’m forgiving Pennsylvania for putting my butt to sleep for 6.5 hours while driving from West Virginia to the New Jersey border. Connecticut definitely wins the “worst state to drive across” award. For All Time.

So I started this essay with the title, “The Solution to Connecticut” so it’s time I present it: Parking Lot and Freeways.

Empty Connecticut of all human habitation. (Except for Stars Hollow, but I don’t think it really exists anyway.) There’s plenty of space for these folk on Long Island, upstate New York, Western Massachusetts (thought I hope they don’t go there) and Rhode Island. Build more highways that cross the state, make the railroad system go further and quicker. Just allow for people to totally bypass the state completely.

Don’t you think? Interstate Connecticut. Oh yes.

But keep the trees.

 

 

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This is a graduation time of year. So many people are either graduating (high school, college, graduate school, trade school, elementary school, kindergarten, barista training–and so on) or attending a graduation that it’s difficult to turn around without bumping into a  graduate, soon-to-be-graduate, or said graduate’s family and friends. It’s just how May and early June are.

I think about graduations a lot during this time of year. Being in my profession, the closer we get to May, I see first-hand how the more insane the students get, trying to get all their work in on time, seeing if they can’t do that “extra credit” they were told at the start of the semester they wouldn’t be able to get only now push has come to shove and they realize they’ve procrastinated to the point where that 3.5 GPA isn’t going to happen. But for the most part, so many of them are focused on graduation that many other responsibilities take a back seat while they have their eyes on the prize–cap ‘n’ gown, tassel, diploma, Pomp and Circumstance (my own personal favorite).

I admit I’m used to college/university commencement and those are different from high school. In university, the faculty (or some or most of them) get all suited up in their heavy doctorally-striped academic regalia and stun the passers-bye with their odd assortment of brilliant (and not-so brilliant) colors, and different shaped caps. They march in solemnly, followed by a mass of equally solemn, black-gowned candidates for degrees. The President of the college might speak, one Vice President might have something to say, and most places dig up a “guest speaker” or two — usually no one anyone has ever heard of before, nor will they ever hear of again (not to mention the fact that no one in the audience will EVER remember what said speaker had to talk about, because all they want is the diploma — which is ultimately mailed to them — and the party afterwards).

High school is different.

Oh, in so many ways. But that’s another story…

But back to graduations. High school is different. Perhaps each school has its own unique traditions, different colors of gowns, or even some who don’t play “Pomp and Circumstance” (but honestly, if you don’t hear that at your graduation, I don’t consider you to have graduated at all). For some, it’s more of a party than a rite-of-passage occasion, marked with some solemnity. Lots of people bring in blow-up beach balls under their gowns and proceed to bounce them around the candidates for graduation while people are trying to speak. Yes, it can be boring, but surely you all can give 2 hours of your life to sitting still and paying attention? (Silly me, thinking that was possible.)

There are some aspects to graduation I thought were sacrosanct, but I recently learned I was  wrong about that, too.

Back in the day (don’t you hate those paragraphs that being with those words? Dust off the dinosaurs, dear, it’s time to talk about the elder days again!!) … back in the day there were two students who spoke at graduations: the Valedictorian and the Salutatorian. Each had a specific purpose and each was there because of their outstanding grades over the course of their four years.

The Valedictorian (and I don’t suppose it needs to be capitalized, but both are important jobs, like President–which also isn’t capitalized unless it’s followed by said president’s name; but I digress…) who was the highest-ranked student in the graduating class.  “Valedictorian” is from the Latin vale dicere which means to  say farewell. Traditionally, the Valedictorian is the final speaker at graduation, which makes sense, because she or he is the one saying farewell. It doesn’t make sense to say farewell half way through graduation and then make everyone sit through another hour of diploma distribution (which is probably where the beach balls came into play).

In the United States, Canada and the Philippines, this speaker is called the Valedictorian; in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Iceland, and Scotland, this speaker is called the “dux”. The Valedictorian’s address is called the valediction.

It’s all very formal and precise and I guess, perhaps, in the days of grade inflation schools end up with more than one student with that perfect, or near-perfect GPA (hence the need to come up with an alternative method of picking the top student). But like The Highlander, “there can be only one.” Or “there should be only one.” But it seems now it’s more like “we can have more than one, right?”

I said previously that there were two student speakers at graduations: the second is the Salutatorian. This particular student is the second highest graduate–only the Valedictorian is higher (in grades). The Salutatorian is the first speaker at graduation, where she or he delivers the salutation, the greeting, to the assembled masses. (For those who revel in trivia, such as myself, you’ll be happy to note that research pulled up some famous names who delivered Salutation speeches: John Wayne, John Legend, Michelle Obama, and Carrie Underwood–who graduated from Checotah High School in Oklahoma in 2001.)

So imagine my surprise, sitting through a high school graduation ceremony recently to find out that this particular high school didn’t have just one Valedictorian, or two, or one Valedictorian and two Salutatorians, but eleven. Eleven Valedictorians.

I’ll pause a moment for that to sink in.

Eleven.

Seriously?

I’m probably the only person who feels the way I do, but I think overcrowding the board with that many Valedictorians waters down the soup (and yes, I’m mixing my metaphors in a major way right now, but crazy things make me crazy in that way.)

Doesn’t knowing that you’re not “the only one” but “one of eleven” make it seem a bit less of an achievement? I have no idea what each of those 11 students had for their GPAs, or how they were chosen, but it rather reminded me of way back a number of years ago when my then 5 year old son’s soccer team got trophies at the end of their soccer season. This was a team that had won only 1 game out of 10. But they all got trophies. Why? Do we have that much trouble accepting the fact that some played soccer better than we did? We have to be rewarded for every single thing we do, whether it’s outstanding or not?

I’m not saying 10 out of 11 of those Valedictorians didn’t deserve accolades, but I am saying that for something that was meant as an honor of the highest–of the “there can be only one” school of thought–it just seems like it’s not that big of a deal when there are so many.

The good thing was this: only five of the 11 spoke. They were good speeches, but they weren’t valedictions, they were just each of the five students speaking for 5 minutes, thanking mostly the same people, and making their parents proud.

But sometimes, tradition is a good thing. I wish there was only one speaker to say goodbye and one to welcome us there. If everybody gets prizes, what makes it special?

 

 

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The decision–conscious or not–to eschew meat altogether was not a difficult one for me. I liked hamburgers (with ubiquitous french fries) as a child, and chicken breasts, and meatloaf, but that was it for me in the meat department. Roast beef? Ack–unless it was the end piece and very well done. The sight of bloody meat made me gag then and still does, for completely different reasons. I never liked pork chops or sausage; bacon only if it was crispy (which it rarely was); and I could tell if anyone in the neighborhood was cooking liver from about five miles away. Duck had the same effect on me and the smell of lamb could make me puke from the next county.

So I was never at home in the land of meat, unless, as I said, it came in the form of a quarter-pounder with cheese or a Big Mac (and even after working at McD’s–my first ever job at $1.65 an hour–I never did learn what was in that special sauce, but I know it had to be loaded with fat and not be very good for me). I got to a point where the little bit of meat I did eat just wasn’t tasting right to me and I was much happier (and felt better) with vegetables, grains, fruit, beans–all the things vegetarians and vegans tout as good for you.

But there was a downside to all of this: cheese.

But I get ahead of myself here, something I’m very good at doing.

There seemed to be something missing from vegetarian eating. I just started feeling as if I wasn’t doing enough. Yes, what can one person do to change things, right? Well, if “one person” in every town decided to make some changes, and that person convinced another person… you see where I’m going with this, right? I don’t expect to change the world, but I can change my small world, and make it better for some people, so with that in mind, I want to do what I can.

It started being more about caring about animals than it was about an eating choice. I didn’t like seeing the looks in the cows’ eyes as they passed me, crammed in those trailers on the highway, headed most likely to some slaughterhouse. I believe they know what’s happening to them, and it always made me sad. Same thing with chickens. Crammed into small “housing” and leading sad, short lives, not ever the way nature intended for them to live, not seeing the light of day, forced to continue to lay eggs, with male chicks just tossed away as garbage because they can’t lay eggs… the more I read and the more I found out, the less appetizing anything from animal products became to me. It was easy to give up the meat, the chicken, and the other meats that I never liked (even liverwurst, which I really did like at one point, in sandwiches, with onions).

But I continued to eat cheese. I think it was just something I blocked from my mind. Or I thought “free range cows” right? Which is crazy, too. For every “free range” cow there’s 1,000 or 2,000 or more who are not “free range” who don’t live very good lives, and who are made to produce enormous amounts of milk–which as humans we really do not need, no matter what the American Dairy Association is trying to sell us (which is more of their product–milk).

I read a piece called “milk comes from a grieving mother” and that settled it for me. Now, lest you want to say, not all cows are treated like that (or perhaps you’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animalshttp://www.amazon.com/Eating-Animals-Jonathan-Safran-Foer/dp/0316069884/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1337042558&sr=1-1 I’ll agree with you. Some aren’t. But most are. And we tend to look away from that. We go to a grocery store where everything’s been butchered and cut up and packaged ever so cleanly so we can distance ourselves from the agony of the death of the animal packaged in front of us. We distance ourselves so we don’t think about what we are doing to animals. It helps us to sleep better at night. Or something.

So I realized that I couldn’t go on feeling the way I did about animals and humanity’s treatment of animals and continue to purchase products that are derived from animals and animal suffering. It had been relatively easy for me up to that point. But there was cheese.

Cheese on pizza; cheese on crackers, baked brie, parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella on eggplant parmesan. So much cheese, in so many forms. Hard, soft, sweet, pungent, and that processed crap called “American cheese”. It’s difficult to go to a Mexican restaurant and have something that isn’t smothered in cheese.

And it tastes so good.

That’s why I have to admit that sometimes I not a very good vegan. I have pizza. Yes. From time to time. Or this incredible eggplant parmesan made with fresh mozzarella. And I feel guilty afterwards, something I’ve grown up with knowing a lot about, guilt.

I’m getting there. I make every concerted effort–cheese makes it difficult. But then I look at the pictures of cows, and goats, and chickens and pigs and I know that every decision I’ve made to be animal friendly has been the right one. There will come a day–soon–when I stop that pizza and eggplant parm and can honestly say I’m a good vegan. It’ll be a good day.

And I guess that’s when I have to give away that leather coat I’ve had for 10 years, too. I keep forgetting about that.

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