unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Leaving Well Enough Alone

Leaves on the ground

Do not disturb until Spring.

Ever since I can remember, I have gone through the same fall ritual:  rake the leaves that fall into perennial beds and around trees, bag ‘em up, and have them hauled off.   And I’m probably late to this realization, but I recently read about the benefits of mulching trees because–in part–it mimicks what happens naturally in forests when leaves fall, protect the trees from possible dehydration in the winter, and then enrich the soil as the leaves break down.

Now, for years I have mowed the leaves that fall on the lawn and have never bagged grass clippings–but left them in place.  Up until now, though, I had always raked up and bagged the leaves in flower beds and around trees.  And those that I missed in late fall, I would rake up in the spring to make things look tidy.

But this year it just struck me as extra work and an unnecessary contribution to a landfill to be that fastidious.  Besides, why buy mulch when you can use the mulch the tree itself gives you?  I’m going to leave the leaves in place, let them break down where they are and let nature do her thing.  It won’t look as manicured, but when the perennials underneath the rotting leaves pop up through them next spring, who’ll even notice?  I doubt even Mother Nature will.

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I Come to Praise ME, Not Bury Him

W.T. Price Memorial Display

W.T. Price Memorial Display (Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whsimages/1907399036/, CC: BY-NC-ND)

A paragraph from a book review recently jumped out at me. The book was about the playwright Harold Pinter and was written by his widow, Antonia Fraser. In making the point that the book told more about the writer than the ostensible subject, the reviewer had this to say:

“If, by the end, we feel we are left with a clearer picture of Fraser than of Pinter, we may want to consider a remark the poet Richard Howard made after one of those memorial services at which the speakers have so much more to say about themselves than about the deceased. ‘The eulogy,’ Howard observed, ‘is the most autobiographical of forms.'”

Boy, ain’t that the truth! How many funerals have you been to where the eulogy was peppered with the words “I” and “me” instead of “he” or “she”?

I have not been to an inordinate number of funerals, but many eulogies have been as much about the speaker as about the deceased. Something like, “I’ll never forget when I first met my dearly departed Ambrose. I was editor of the Law Review and he, a fresh-faced first year. And I clearly recall the life-changing advice I gave him years later. I had just been appointed managing partner at Gagg, Choake, and Hurle and I was on my way to becoming a Supreme Court justice. Ambrose came to me in a time of crisis and I told him…”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But, while mourners should know the eulogist’s connection to the deceased, many speakers do make it just a little too much about themselves. Maybe they fear that when it’s their turn to be eulogized, their eulogist won’t get it right — so better to make points about themselves when they’ve got a captive audience. Who knows?

There is one good thing, though, about being the subject of a eulogy: you won’t hear it. Cold comfort, I know. Cold indeed.

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Goodbye, Ratskeller!

It seems counter-intuitive to plant a tree this late in the year, but the experts insist you can.  Besides, if you find a tree you like, you can get them for a real bargain right now.  This is personally relevant because there’s a 30-foot long flower bed in our backyard where — to economize — we planted mainly sunflowers from seed this summer.  Here’s a picture of them at their peak.

Rat garden salad bar with sunflowers

Rat garden salad bar with sunflowers

And they looked great — for about a week!  After that, the sunflowers that didn’t droop and break were soon ravaged by the squirrels — sloppy eaters  who dropped large chunks which in turn were feasted on by rats.  They loved it.  A real mess.  It exacerbated a rat problem up and down our alley–one which has generated multiple visits this year by the nice folks from the city’s rat abatement swat team.

That did it.  I decided I would look for some end-of-the-season bargain trees to plant in the former rat garden.  And here was the deal–if I was willing to forego the guarantee and plant the trees myself, I could get a 35% discount at one of my favorite garden centers.  I happily purchased three, small serviceberry trees and put them in.  Here they are.

Former Rat Garden with Serviceberry Trees

Former Rat Garden with Serviceberry Trees

Anyway, I think I planted them correctly (with soil conditioner, water, mulch, not too deep), but planting a tree is an act of hope.  And my record for late-season tree planting is decidedly mixed. Let’s see if these make it through the winter.  But one thing I know for sure — no way am I planting another rat salad bar.

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What’s Dat You Say?

Interesting article recently in the New York Times about New Yorkers who have a strong “New Yawk” accent and find that it’s a professional hindrance.  One afflicted person gives speeches and found that some audience members had a hard time understanding him.  Another was an actress whose accent clashed with her patrician appearance and made it difficult to get parts.

The article cites lyrics from a popular song from the ’40s as an extreme example of New Yawk speech:  “Who is de toughest goil in dis whole woild?/Moitle from Thoidy-Thoid and Thoid.”

Even if their speech isn’t that bad, some New Yorkers have gone to speech therapists who are considered “New York accent reduction specialists.”  Great title, huh?  Anyway, these speech therapists come right out and say talking that way makes people sound ignorant.  Changing one’s accent isn’t easy and it can take months, even years, of concerted effort.

It’s easy to make fun of a New Yawk accent, but we in Shi-CAW-go had better watch it.  Here’s a sentence I found on a website that purports to illustrate the nasal and flat way some of us in Chicago talk:  “I was supposed ta see da Bearsss play but I got stuck in traaaffic ahhn da Daaan Ryan.” Ouch.

The funny thing about accents is that people who have them don’t always hear them — even for those of us who think we are speaking so-called “standard English.”  To paraphrase Robert Burns, one of the hardest things to do is to see ourselves as others see (or hear) us.  But wait– didn’t Burns have a pretty thick accent, too?  I wonder if he heard it.

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Local Boy Makes Good

YouTube Preview Image I was channel surfing the other night and happened to park on the late night talk show Chelsea Lately.  She was talking to a teenager who–unbeknownst to me–is a YouTube sensation for the many clips he’s posted in which he lip-syncs in front of his computer in his bedroom.  He seemed like a nice kid, a little on the shy side–but well within the bell curve of how many high school sophomores might act if interviewed on national television.

So what a revelation it was when the show aired a brand new YouTube clip of him lip-syncing with rapper 50 Cent (the television show arranged it).  I was taken by the teenager’s expressiveness, fluidity, and dramatic ability.  He was completely natural, in the moment, and, for want of a better term, a real artist.  I found him engaging and fun to watch.

I don’t know where lip-syncing ranks in the hierarchy of artistic expression (not high, I would guess), but this kid has talent.  And what is talent?  One definition might be the ability to make it impossible for a viewer to ignore your performance; I know I couldn’t.  I’ve noticed that an actor has a distinct advantage if he or she has large expressive eyes and this kid has a pair of peepers that he puts to their full artistic potential.  See if you agree.

And what a pleasant surprise to discover that he’s from the Chicago area.  His name is Keenan Cahill and he’s a sophomore at York High School in Elmhurst.  One of his clips already has more than 17 million hits.  In just a few days, his new clip with 50 Cent is closing in on 7 million.  Way to go, Keenan.  Keep ‘em coming!

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A Modest Proposal

Mars the Mysterious

Mars the Mysterious (Source: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center - http://www.flickr.com/photos/28634332@N05)

There’s an intriguing story in today’s Sun-Times about scientists proposing one-way trips to Mars.  One-way trips would be cheaper and faster than those designed to bring travelers back.  The scientists compare it to settlers in the New World who left Europe with no expectation of returning.  The goal is to colonize Mars ASAP as a hedge against a catastrophe on Earth.  Sounds prudent.

So far, so good.

But here’s where a merely good idea becomes absolutely brilliant:  the scientists want to send folks who are “a little bit older” — 60 or so.  Now you’ve got my attention!  The reasoning is the mission would undoubtedly reduce a person’ s lifespan because of a lack of medical care and due to high radiation–radiation which would also damage the reproductive organs of younger people.

And think of all the earthly reasons it would make sense to blast seniors into space:  what better way to deal with the doomsday scenarios for Social Security, Medicare, and all the issues attendant to an aging society?  Blast Grandma to Mars!  Sure, she’ll get fried once she lands, but before she gets completely baked, she can help build a cozy retreat for the people back on Earth in case they suddenly need to relocate en masse. No more worrying about nursing homes, long-term care, or becoming a burden to your family.  Your golden years await you on the red planet!

The authors of the study think that lots of people would be willing to make the sacrifice and volunteer.  They may be right. But if you’re a boomer, as I am, and your adult kids suddenly show up with your bags packed and a one-way space travel ticket, take the hint.  Just make sure they’ve packed plenty of sunscreen for you.

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An Election Day Thank-You

I do my best to stay informed on the political candidates and the issues.  But honestly, most of my attention goes to the races for the major offices.  Few of us have the time to be conversant with every single race that appears on the ballot.  So a big shout-out to the editorial boards of the major newspapers who do the footwork so that the rest of us can at least consider their recommendations.

This morning my daughter and I happened to be voting at the same time.  I asked her if she wanted to see the list of endorsements I’d brought along from one of the papers.  She asked a logical question: “How do you know you can trust them?”

I said I knew some of the people on the editorial board, thought they were smart, and had given this a lot of thought.  I also said I wasn’t accepting all their endorsements, but I took their advice seriously on some of the races I hadn’t studied well–and was certainly voting as they recommended on the judges who should be sacked.  She accepted the clipping.

As newspapers struggle to stay afloat financially, let’s not forget this important role they play every election.  They inform, they prod, they question.  We citizens are the beneficiaries.  With so much un-vetted racket in the blogosphere, it’s a remarkable service to have a group of smart, known people giving us the benefit of their brains, insights, and political philosophy.  It’s like a group of grown-ups giving you advice–you don’t have to take it, but are better for having heard them out in the first place.

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What, Not Vote?

I was shopping at a big box home supply store last week and struck up a conversation with a sales clerk.  We were talking about the political season and he told me that he hadn’t voted in about 10 years.  He said that he used to really care about elections, but was furious and turned off one year when some politicians approved salary increases for themselves at a time when he was really struggling financially.

I told him I understood his frustration, but that he seemed like a really smart guy and by not voting he was letting other people make choices for him.  “Even if you’re not crazy about any of the candidates,  you can still pick who you consider to be the lesser of the evils,” I said.  (He wasn’t convinced, so we went on with the business of finding a heavy-duty garbage can.)

I know there are some high-profile races out there where neither major party candidate is perceived to be clearly better than his or her opponent.  But not voting–are you kidding?  In spite of all the coverage and reading I’ve done about the candidates, my vote counts the same as everybody else’s.  So does yours.  And no way would I sit out and let others make choices for me!  I hope you feel the same.

Besides, don’t you find the voting process itself to be a kick?  I do.  Part of it is the ceremony.  You line up with your neighbors, you check in, you get a ballot and spend time filling it out.  Then you turn it in.  It can make you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.  And how often does that happen these days?

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