My Mother The Electric Car

Just wondering: The 1965 TV show My Mother the Car only made it through one season, and was called the “worst TV show of all time” by an IMDB reviewer (Internet Movie Data Base). Then why do I remember it so well? The story was a bit macabre, about a man who bought a custom-designed antique car built out of parts from a 1924 Model T and who hears his deceased mother’s voice from the radio. That is her only way of communicating with him after reincarnating into that car. Yes, I suppose that does sound perverse but everyone was charmed by Mr. Ed, weren’t they?

My own car is a 2021 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in that I bought a few months ago. No deceased relatives talk to me on the radio, but all its gadgetry spooked me out after fifteen years of driving a 2004 Honda Civic for over 225,000 miles. That was the kind of car where you had to put a physical key in the ignition, if you will recollect. Having what amounts to a computer screen in the new car on the dashboard and hearing directions boom out on Bluetooth throughout the Toyota makes me feel like I am lost within the belly of a giant computer. I was so overwhelmed at first I felt nervous about driving and God forbid parking it. A friend said, “Your change from the 2004 to the 2021 car is like you’ve gone from a horse and buggy to one of those horseless wonders.”

With all its written warnings and comments such as “window left open” and “you are getting a score of 70 out of a hundred for environmentally friendly driving,” it might just as well BE talking to me just like Mom or Dad did. And like Mom, the car even does things for me, like locking the doors as I get in, turning the headlights on or off as conditions warrant and deciding when to use gas and when to use the electric battery as I drive. It’s a wonder she—I mean “it”–doesn’t open the door for me when I want to come out.

Oh yes, and one other way my car is just like a parent: when I forget to put on my seat belt, there is a gentle warning at first as I start driving, and then if I keep on driving more (wait wait, I can’t pull over yet! I plead to the car), the warning sound becomes mercilessly more frequent and louder. I understand, Mom. You just want to protect me and punish me for my own good.

To Sing Or Not To Sing

Have you ever heard a dog sing? When I was a child, our family visited a musician who had four grand pianos in her home. I marveled at how they took up the whole first floor. That alone was a novelty, but how she comported herself with her terrier was truly a one-of-a-kind performance. She claimed it could sing. She would stoop down towards her doggie, hold its paws in her hands, and say, “wuhbideewoobidee” over and over. The perplexed pet would try to please its mistress and imitate her, but it more or less came out with its usual bark as far as I could tell except for– maybe I was just imagining it– a “wuh” at the beginning of each bark. But surely, the kind of singing aimed for was classical, for this grand dame promoted “serious” music in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, which she might have considered to be culturally barren, badly needing an injection of recitals and the like that she organized as a remedy. This story is all true, except, I must confess, which breed of dog it had been. I can’t remember the breed, but somehow “terrier” was the first kind of dog that leapt to my mind.

Fortunately, I was exposed to far more classical music than that. At home my father would have me follow the libretto as we listened to operas from our record collection. I was so enchanted with how people could sing as they spoke to each other, that I pondered what it would be like if all of us sang everything we said. What would an argument sound like? Perhaps there would be lots of staccato notes and discord. A declaration of love might consist of languid harmonious notes. And I wondered how we would render the simplest things like, “It’s time to wash the dishes” and “how is everything going today”? I had wished this fantasy were so; it seemed existence would have been so much richer and entertaining.

As a teenager, my musical outlet was to learn the clarinet. But even that was connected with singing. When the school teacher gave us a choice of instruments to take up, I chose the clarinet because I fancied that it sounded the most like a human voice. Until I spoke tonight with a friend of mine who used to be an opera singer, I treasured this decision as unique. “Naa,” she said. “That’s what all musicians think about their instruments. I knew a guy who said his trombone was like the human voice.” “He did”? I exclaimed. “Sure, he said just like the voice, he can play gradations of tones on the trombone; it’s very flexible. And I know viola and cello players who swear they hear the human voice through those, too.” Maybe what all this amounts to is how so very anthropocentric we are, down to our very possessions. (There. I haven’t had the right time and place to bring up that word for ages.)

I figured I’d ask that same musical friend about singing dogs to see if she would declare that they were not unheard of either. And guess what, she said sure there are. She promptly mentioned singing to a dog whose owner claimed it could sing along. “Well, she didn’t exactly sing; howl was more like it. But the little dog did follow along with my pitch, and got into the sound and spirit of the thing.” See that? The whole world does want to sing!

Addendum: Upon reading this minutes after publication, my brother said there were two, not four grand pianos in the lady’s home. These pianos were so imposing to little me, that emotionally speaking, they became twice as many.

A Travelogue of Dublin, But Naturally an Offbeat One

Upon entering our hotel room in Dublin, Ireland on the third floor, I came across a notice I have never seen in a hotel before: “Be sure to keep the windows closed, window washing taking place on Wednesday March 8”. My husband Steve and I were wondering why the maids would need the windows closed; couldn’t they close and open them as they wished? Wednesday, we heard a thumping sound, coming from outside the window, and then saw a squeegee mop moving methodically back and forth and up and down across the pane, but no person and no scaffolding. We looked down and saw a long pole, and then spotted the man who was manipulating it all the way from the ground. Steve promptly started filming, and the man must have felt important having his mundane task elevated through that videoing into a subject worthy of notice, and so he started cleaning our window in earnest. As he did so, passersby noticed us and the camera, and they stopped to see what the fuss was about. Perhaps they wondered what we foreigners did instead to clean our own windows. Naturally as a few people gathered, more stopped to see what spectacle others had stopped for. Meanwhile Steve was sure our window was getting a much more thorough cleaning than those of the other less fortunate guests. (thump swish, thump, swoosh)

Oh yes, we did do more stimulating and conventional things such as touring Dublin Castle and noticing the St Patrick’s Day decorations and green lighting multiplying in the shops and around the statues on the main thoroughfare of O’Connell Street, and the bars filling up more and more as the Day drew closer. We also saw the James Joyce Museum, which made me consider rereading Ulysses which would now be about 40 years later if I follow through, and sampled a vegan version of the traditional Irish breakfast, which includes beans and mushrooms as well as eggs and (in our case mock) sausage.

The Day itself, ironically, was our day to take the plane back home to New Jersey. Who but us leaves Ireland on St. Patty’s Day? Around 5am that morning, I once again heard unusual sounds from outdoors. We got ourselves outside soon after to catch a 6am bus to the airport, and we saw the source of the sounds: workers were calling to each other as they were setting up barricades and blocking off the side streets in readiness for the St. Patrick’s Day parade due to start that afternoon. Some of the floats were already pinned up high on some of the buildings. Charming, but then alarming, as we learned that our bus would be blocked off from the O’Connell St. route as well. Laden with luggage, we jogged for a half a mile past the barricades, and a bus appeared with “airport” marked on it just as we got to the corner. Because of all of the confusion across the city, we had the bus to ourselves all the way to the airport.

We missed the parade and almost missed the bus, but as a consolation prize we did get to see airport personnel dressed up like leprechauns and other fanciful figures. Castles and galleries are fine, but the minutiae that refract the uniqueness of a land are the most lasting souvenirs and the most fun to write about.

Post Script: After we landed, I went on YouTube to see the parade and the buildings we had passed by every day of our trip. Here is one video here to give you a taste of that main part of the city: The green and yellow snaky shapes were what I saw as we scurried down the street to catch the bus.

PPS: A friend pointed out to me another irony: That at the end of the YouTube video, the band was playing “Oklahoma”!

A 1969 Penny For Your Thoughts

A 1969 penny is sitting right here in my hand, and I swear, it seems like Lincoln is winking at me and smiling. I move the coin closer to my eyes and I hear something. What, a metallic voice? the coin is talking to me? Well okay, dream or not, I’ll grant the coin or Abe or whatever an interview.

Me: What is going on here? Is there some presence inside your metal?

Coin: Naturally, all coins can speak. it’s just that most humans assume we can’t and so they don’t hear a thing due to their insensitivity to everything that’s around them even though they say, “Money talks.” So I’m glad I’ve found my way to you; makes life more interesting.

Me: I can imagine. Or, I might be imagining you are saying such a thing. Wait, that you are saying anything at all.

Coin: No, this is really me talking. And I have so much to say, it’s been a very long time since anyone has listened to me.

Me: Oh dear. I bet you’ve seen a lot, being “born” in 1969. Did you witness the moon landing of that year?

Coin: Luckily, the person who had me at the time put me on the table near his TV, so I actually got to watch this turning point in history. It was a nice comfortable table, too, and a pretty real shiny penny was lying right beside me, but this bliss didn’t last long. The human was going to spend me at the convenience store after the moon shot show ended, but as she was getting her money out standing in line at the store, she dropped me on the floor and didn’t want to bother hunting for me.

Soon a little boy came along, spotted me, and I tremble with anger to say, he had the nerve to say out loud what would he want with a mere penny and just let me lay there in the dirt and cold with menacing mice in one corner. But at the end of the day, someone else spotted me, lifted me up—a little too quickly, because I felt dizzy–and was glad to see me, as my date had some personal significance to him. it was the year of his high school graduation. That was good news; I would be treated well at least for a while, maybe a long while, before I was handed on to my next owner.

Me: So how did you come to end up with me?

Coin: Some children were at that grad’s home, and they needed pennies to play a game. They then took yours truly and the rest of the coins to a candy store, and then when you showed up there you got me as part of your change.

Me: Well I’ll be! If you don’t want to travel anymore, you can stay with me, and I will put you on a soft cloth in a nice warm place.

Coin: that ‘s something to seriously consider. I’ve always had a sense of adventure, wondering where I would end up next and who I’d be with, but sometimes it has not been pleasant. Maybe it IS time to retire and just stay put. Besides, now I have someone to talk to. It makes um lots of sense. And as they say, I’m a penny for your thoughts.

Me: Indeed you are, and the best one cent deal I’ve ever made.

Coin: But if you could put some pretty pennies, preferably young ones from the 70’s right next to me, that would make my retirement just heavenly.

Me: Sure. That’s a perfect way for me to put in my two cents.

Humor, History, Honesty

Coins, stamps, dolls, celebrity photos—those are the sort of thing most people collect. I’m not most people. I do offbeat things, like making a collection of all the eulogies I have delivered over the years. Morbid? Not at all. Eulogies (particularly Jewish ones) show a slice of history and depending on how much the family members tell me, they may include a humorous anecdote and a bit of honesty about a less rosier side of the deceased. Here is an example:

(Dated September 2014) The array of diamond rings, the sparkling watch bands, the silver necklaces and the golden bracelets all beckoned Lester’s customers into his store. But the central attraction of his jewelry store was Lester himself. Wearing a blazer, he dressed like a gentleman in every respect. His fairness, his expertise, his genteel manners, and his devotion to the customer, raised the bar in the jewelry business as to what constituted customer service.

Imagine the following scenario if you will: a couple was going to be married and the wedding day arrived, diamond ring still not in hand—not in the groom’s hand, and certainly not in anyone else’s. Just like in the movies, the ring arrived at Lester’s store just in time for him to personally drive over to the church and practically slip the ring onto the bride’s finger as the clergyman was pronouncing the couple man and wife. Now that’s what I call customer service!

Before taking over the jewelry store from his father, who had established it in 1906, Lester served as a bombardier in World War II. As his grandson said, “Grandfather was a war hero”….

The public knew Lester as an upright citizen, but not much about his personal life. I learned that he was, as the family put it, “a magnet for dogs and babies”. A lucky white poodle that sought him out at the dining room table got the high class treats of spaghetti and of ice cream. Wait, spaghetti and ice cream? The family also told me a bit about how he cherished his wife. They had been married for 53 years. But despite all these sources of satisfaction, perhaps he never allowed himself the pleasures of spontaneity and of wearing informal clothes. Seeing him in jeans and a T-shirt would have been as incongruous as tossing his diamond jewelry out the store window.

Might it be, though, that now Lester is in a heavenly place, enjoying all that he had missed out on? Perhaps he is back in his wife’s arms, relaxing in a comfy cardigan and jeans as he and she lift up all the babies in heaven to fuss over. Perhaps they both are even now feeding all the dogs who have gathered round, petting them to their hearts content.


If you are reading this to learn about writing a eulogy, keep in mind that you are honoring the deceased and helping the mourners to launch their grief journey. Aiming for the three ingredients of humor history and honesty point the way to making this happen.

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Dislike Dystopian Sci-fi? Then Read On

Five space aliens showed up on my front lawn this very morning. You might think that is too routine a thing to mention, but as they took note of me looking out of my bay window, they bowed and smiled, perhaps to reassure me that they were not of the dystopian sort that I often came across and had to have hauled away. The considerate behavior of these five was a welcome change of pace. They slowly inched nearer, as if taking pains not to startle me. At first I thought they wanted to check me out. But no, it was the window, naturally, because it was made of stained glass depicting impressionistic scenes of mountains and streams. Could it be that they didn’t have windows where they came from?

One of them looked at me as if asking for permission, and started touching the glass, tentatively at first, and then more firmly. I thought I had better go outside and supervise; I did not want broken glass and spurts of fear on their part.

I did not know which planet they were from, much less their language, but they must have hailed from a serene secure society, since they took my presence for granted rather than as a source of concern. I gently motioned for them to stand back from the window and showed them how to just touch and not push on the panes. I then thought how nice it would be to take them inside, so they could see all of my objects and paintings and architectural detail, but they all rushed over to the window to look at the courtyard they had just left, preferring to look out of a window as well as to peer into one.

That seemed to satisfy them, and they each danced a little jig in front of me—a form of thanks?– and they hopped back outside, and they left the premises altogether, and presumably the town, and the planet. What was that all about? Perhaps they had come for the mystery of the boundary between inside and outside. Ha! More likely, they had decided to cross our planet off their list as not containing what they were looking for


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Artificial Intelligence and Tender Loving Care

Sure, we chaplains are supposed to be paragons of compassion, but when I heard a scholar talking about the Talmud and its application to artificial intelligence last week, I thought even compassion can obscure one’s priorities. Especially after hearing him say in the beginning of his lecture that climate change, epidemics, nuclear bombs, and artificial intelligence could threaten human survival. And no, he was not talking about robots showing compassion to people. Well, then what? About humans being compassionate to them!

What if, he queried, now or in the future, AI could have feelings, including the ability to suffer? He wonders if it is wrong to “tease” AI for example with a request that would trigger some disruption of one of its programs or even cause it to damage its software. Instead, he said, we should treat AI well, particularly in case in the future (if not already but I doubt that), robots can experience emotions. And I mean “experience” them, feeling pain and joy and so on. What, we have to give them birthday parties so they can be happy?

Whether AI can be conscious or not is a huge question which I won’t belabor my dear readers with. Suffice it to say that if a robot passes the Turing Test, which means a human cannot tell apart the behavior of a robot from that of a human, then let’s give the AI the benefit of the doubt that it/she/he/xe can experience feelings. Well okay, I grant to the scholar who thinks it is immoral to cause robots to suffer that we mind our P’s and Q’s with them just to be on the safe side. It might very well be in the future that at a cocktail party you won’t be exactly sure if that new person you are being introduced to is a robot, a human, or a hybrid of the two.

I think the ethics the scholar raised has more to do with the humans involved if I may say so myself. And who, pray, are they? Exactly two. The creator of the AI (let’s assume just one person) and the consumer interacting with it. I wonder if we are “mean” to a chatbot, for example, because we resent or fear the person who created it: “Darn,” we say, “I miss the good old days where I could ask a real human my insurance questions.” Perhaps if we try to confound a chatbot, the one we are truly disrespecting is the human behind its creation. But that’s no biggie either, unless somehow that human finds out about your snarky behavior. More important is what such behavior signifies about ourselves.

In Jewish mysticism, even an inert object like a rock has, to put it simply, some sort of spiritual status. Minimally, inanimate objects indeed have a form comprised of atoms and they do exist. We might take pleasure in kicking the heck out of a rock on the road or in fooling a bot, but these are perverse pleasures born out of anger or meanness towards what exists in this universe besides ourselves. In “mistreating” anything that exists rather than honestly confronting our own feelings about it or anything else connected with it, we are truncating our own self-understanding and our own experience of being human.

Treats And Poisons in New Orleans

The three ladies who joined me for breakfast at a B and B in New Orleans (in Algiers Point, to be precise) were as cheerful as could be towards me. But the more frolicsome the small talk became, the more I felt as if I were losing mass. I also was losing my appetite as they described foods that seemed to be as fattening as possible and which I was not brought up with. Thus for me, the dishes fell in a spectrum from unappetizing to downright repulsive and nauseating. The women were massive; the one next to me had to be over 300 pounds. I have never felt lighter and more fragile; I wonder if I was going to slide off my chair if she inadvertently rubbed elbows with me. As I was daintily eating my vegetarian breakfast of pancakes, tea, orange juice and cantaloupe slices, they kept talking about all the food they had eaten yesterday, and the food they would be eating today for brunch; some from a cooking class, and the rest at various restaurants like Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s and The Country Club.

I was intimidated not only by the quantity of food they had been consuming and were about to consume, but by their mention of every kind of food that I cannot fathom even wanting to smell, especially the recipes that compounded more than one form of meat or fish with another in the same dish. For example, the night before, they had as an appetizer Oysters en Brochette, which are fried oysters accompanied by bacon. Then for an entree, Hog’s Head and Trotter Terrine, which includes cheese made from the head and feet. (Um, yum?) Dessert was Bananas Foster. Meanwhile at our breakfast they were consuming several pieces of sausage along with the pancakes. As the meal ended,there was one pancake left, which I offered to my table mate, but she said, “Oh, I could not possibly eat another; I have to watch my figure.”

During the meal, they stopped talking about food long enough to meet my inquiry as to how long they would be staying, which was a few more days. I thought to myself I was doomed to breakfasting every morning in an atmosphere of smiley-face small talk with indigestion as my fate.

At last the encounter was over, and I could walk to the ferry that would go from Algiers Point to the trolleys on the other side near the French Quarter and the Warehouse District. Free to walk in the mild breezes, far from food of any kind and free of those endlessly enthusiastic women. After the five-minute ride, I saw there was a bit of a problem at the trolley stop as I waited on a bench. I saw people giving up and walking away. As I was debating how much longer to wait, I saw other tourists approach. I wished I had decided sooner to give up, as those selfsame three women were part of the prospective trolley riders. (“No way”, you say. “Oh yes,” I say.) Once again I had to engage in insipid chatter and bland smiles as they sat down on a bench. As I stood up and concluded our talk with a warning that the trolley might not come, they nodded at me, giggling at each other about the recent fruits of their shopping expedition, presumably unconcerned with waiting indefinitely.

I swear that every detail of this story is true, except for the precise names of all the dishes they had eaten.

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What Complete Strangers Tell Me

Even though I am retired, maybe I carry a “chaplainesque” air about me that gets complete strangers at a social occasion to tell me intimate details about themselves within minutes of meeting them. I was at a birthday party the day before Halloween, and my party mate, seated across the table, was wearing a mostly pink T-shirt with a friendly ghost and a few other guests from the spirit world along with a pumpkin to hammer home that yes, this was indeed a Halloween scene and that its owner wanted to proclaim that she was part of the Halloween fun. After asking its wearer where she was from, I kept the conversation going by alluding to her “neat” shirt. She said, “You know, actually I have mixed feelings about Halloween.” To me that was a teaser, and so I simply could not let it go at that like a normal person would at this hint at darkness and just say “uh-huh” and move on to how tasty the penne vodka was and what her connection with the birthday boy was.

My chaplain radar picked up on some issue lurking behind that shirt beyond a few unwanted pounds. So I said, “How do you mean?” And she divulged, “Well, my father had died a few days before Halloween, but some family couldn’t come the next day, and then there was Saturday, [Jewish funerals do not take place on the Sabbath] and so we had to wait until Sunday, on Halloween.” A little startled at this revelation, I half-kidded, “Gee, a funeral on Halloween. Appropriate in some ways.” And I hastened to add, “But yes, unfortunate, since you are reminded of this every Halloween.” Spooky indeed. Yet there she was with that shirt with its cheerful spin on October 31st.

And that’s not all. A few minutes later, I discovered that she had her own company where she sells air conditioners and heaters, and that sometimes she gets up around 3 AM and has trouble getting back to sleep. I even gave her a meditative remedy for that, and if you are interested let me know and I will tell you.

Not that I was keeping score, but she had revealed at least three big parts of her life, and I myself had revealed nothing. Kind of like it was with my hospice patients, complete strangers all. Once a chaplain, always a chaplain?

PS: yes, the title for this post is supposed to be reminiscent of the subtitle of my book, which is, “What People Told Me Before They Died”.

Sweet Salsa, Spicy Mistranslation

My knowledge of Spanish as a second language was just enough to stop an argument or at least a communication failure between my pal Gary Katz (real friend, fake name) and a waitress at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan around 50th Street and 8th Avenue. In the English translation section, the menu featured among its breakfast selections waffles with “fruit and salsa on top.” To native speakers of English, “salsa” evokes an image of that red spicy sauce one can eat with most any savory dish such as meat and fish, and certainly with Latino cuisine such as fajitas, tacos and enchiladas. So my friend thought that such a sauce would taste awful on fruit let alone on the waffles, and he told the waitress to please put the fruit on top but leave the salsa on the side. The waitress kept saying, “so you don’t want the fruit on top?” and the friend kept saying, “Yes, yes, I do want the fruit, but not the salsa.” He gave me a look as if to say, “How gross to put tomatoes and chili peppers and garlic and lime peppers on waffles”.

Ah. Linguist to the rescue (Yes, that is I; linguistics was one of my many careers.) I suddenly remembered a discrepancy between the Spanish meaning of salsa and the English one, and figured out what was going on. I said in Spanish to the waitress, you mean the salsa is a sweet sauce with the fruit’, and then I told Gary the same thing in English, explaining that in Spanish, “salsa” means any kind of sauce, whether savory or sweet or spicy. He once again gave me a weary look as if to mutter, “Now really. So much cross-cultural confusion just over getting some breakfast.” He solemnly sighed to the waitress, yes, yes, the salsa on top. With the fruit.

You never know what can cause a misunderstanding across languages.In this instance, it’s not just a loss in translation, but a loss for a word jumping from one language to another. Goes to show you a fellow can’t even depend on borrowed words. In this case, “salsa” took off from Spanish leaving its more general meaning behind as it made the trip to English, with only its spicy meaning intact. Good thing we were not trying to make peace plans or to establish a new energy policy with folks in high places. Just ordering breakfast was trial enough.