Not Your Typical Summer Job

Despite all the careers I’ve had (at least five depending on how you count, including teaching English in Japan, being a congregational rabbi, then a hospice chaplain, and now Chief Marketing Officer for my husband’s investment company), one of my favorite jobs was the one I had in the summer of 1983. I was a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin majoring in linguistics, and had just been let go from my job of selling bagels on campus shortly after joining their enterprise. Seems I was too overdressed for the image they wanted to project. I did not happen to have shirts with holes in my possession.

I did not want to repeat my other temporary job experiences in Austin such as peeling vegetables in dank kitchens, so I applied to be a security guard at one of UT’s dorms. Given what you might know about me, you may be thinking, how could a sweet girl like you want to take a job like that? Goes to show you honey you never can tell. Turns out the boss had hired me as the first woman to fill this position. Oh, I thought. I am a trailblazer. Little did I dream this would be the precursor to my being one of the first 200 female rabbis in the world when I was ordained in the early 90’s at Hebrew Union College in New York City.

I was to patrol the dorm halls as well as the various levels of the parking garage nearby to protect and defend the vulnerable residents. I especially loved walking around the garage; being up high in the cross breezes was a relief from the Texas heat, and I got to have a terrific view of the stars during my 4 to 11PM shift. Once in awhile I had a friend or two join me for that view. And at the reception area, I was to let in male visitors to the dorms only if they submitted an entry permit to my scrutiny, and only after I called the lady in question to confirm that the visit was desired. I wore a blue uniform (Whew, no issue about how I was dressed), and carried a walkie-talkie where I got to say “Unit One to Unit Two, come in please,” just like on the detective shows. I also was armed with a canister of mace as I bravely went about my duties.

One time, two male youths were vandalizing light bulbs on one of the parking lot floors. I first approached them to ask them to stop, and then discretely reported the incident to my boss on the walkie-talkie. I found out later that he had deliberately sent them up there to see if I would do something about it. Another thing I remember was when he hired another guard to replace one of my peers. When this newcomer made unwelcome commentary regarding my gender, all with alcohol on his breath, the boss got rid of him straightaway. What a great boss! Remember this was in the 80’s. No wonder I liked this gig. He protected me, gave me challenges, and explained that he had admired and therefore hired me, woman and all, because I was more savvy due to my life experiences. Unlike many other UT students, I had lived and worked in El Salvador, Colombia, and Japan.

There you go, all the elements of a rewarding job: adventure, pleasant surroundings, variety, a leisurely pace, exercise, and above all, a boss who respected and appreciated me. Now then: what’s that you were saying to me about the summer job you yourself had when you were a student?

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For more of my writing on a small scale, see me on https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Capturing A Sunset Secondhand

 

It is one thing to find one awe-inspiring sunset after another in the place they are supposed to be; that is, up in the sky. It’s quite another to find one reflecting off of a steel utility box affixed to some anonymous concrete wall. Photographer Walter Levy chanced upon this scene on the back side of the National Aquarium at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. My eyes keep darting from the lively lines on the wall to the hazy softened bands of light on the box. Each square draws attention to the other, as if reminding me that each one is equally worth seeing up close. The sun is no longer strong enough to be harsh; the darkening crevices on the wall take on a black richness as their harshness recedes. The narrow verticals and wide horizontals are posing their questions to each other and to us. “What do we each give you that neither could alone?” Oh! I espy an unobtrusive keyhole on the right. What if we could open that metal door to get an answer?

Here is what the photographer himself has to say: “There are various ways of looking at this image, chiefly the feelings it evokes, and the ‘technical” reasons it works (composition, complementary colors, contrast between the harsh verticals on the wall versus the soft, pastel horizontal emphasis of the steel panel, etc.) The visual elements beckoned me to the scene, but as a finished piece I’m drawn to its ambiguity: is the bright square a reflection or a window? Considering I made this in July 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, I see this as a portal that allows a glimpse of a happier world. Perhaps images like this arise from my unconscious, containing a message not released until later.”

Walter Levy has been a photographer for over fifty years, gradually embracing the joys and struggles of the creative life of an artist. You can see a wide range of his art on his site, https://www.walterlevyphotography.com/ .

 

For more of my observations, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

 

Telling It Like It Is

It seems so inconsequential, but from time to time, I still think about an unresolved detail about my retirement from hospice work. It’s been about four months, but the detail persists. Not as much as before, but in a faded out sort of way. Yes, it’s been four whole months like I said, and yes, my supervisor had met with me at the hospice residence so I could turn in the keys and iPad, and yes indeed, I grabbed a few personal items from my office that had sat there since the beginning of the pandemic after I stopped seeing patients and families in person: A dark-green leather bookmark that has embossed gold lettering referring to Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia with the motto, “third oldest and only Gothic Synagogue in the U.S.”; bargain-sized hand sanitizer; and a greeting card of appreciation written by a patient that said, “Thank you for your help, prayers and conversation. May the Holy Spirit continue to bless and guide you.” The latter was left on my desk by a nurse. And yes, back home I have gained closure by throwing out various pamphlets such as “Myths About Morphine”, “Improved Spiritual Assessment Charting”, and other such scintillating documents. And no, I did not forget to change my status to “retired” at my professional association for chaplains. Oh, yes, sure, of course I told lots of people about it, including readers of this blog when I wrote a couple of posts about it before.

So, what nagging detail is left, you ask? I was not hoping for a retirement party, even if Covid had not been the issue. I fantasized about a departing gift (modest of course, say, worth about $8.00), but did not really expect one. That leaves one thing: at a bare minimum acknowledgment by an upper echelon member of The Administration of my existence and date of departure if not God forbid recognition of my years of emotionally demanding work. After 5 years of service, not even an email of any kind let alone a card in the real mail. Not even a canned text from said administrator saying “thanks for your years of service and enjoy your retirement,” which would have been enough for me to mark my work and exit as having happened for real. This bothered me especially because for a few years prior to this hospice position, the last hospice I had worked for was led by some of the very same administrators. Something in me has felt unresolved without that. It’s like hearing the next to last chord in a symphony without being followed by that final, conclusive one. Or like hearing one of my dementia patients say the first few words of a sentence and then not being able to complete it, as in, “When I was in high school, I couldn’t find….” What a teaser not to learn what he could not find.

Emotionally, it is strange what happens to time when there is no official recognition of going from one phase in life to another. Thus the importance of baby namings, coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and funerals in religion, and special events in secular life like the opening ceremonies at the Olympics or an inauguration. In a way, it’s as if those five years were not real in our own dimension, but had taken place in some other one, or were somehow compressed into one point. That, you must admit, is even stranger than time travel.

That so much in life is unresolved is certainly no headliner. But writing about it here and now on Offbeatcompassion has brought me to an insight: We can find satisfaction in a novel or piece of music or an artwork because there is a sense of completion. The story ends, the piece is finished. And what was I doing all those fifteen years (in a total of three individual hospices) as a hospice chaplain? Listening to people tell their stories, which had a beginning middle and end.

In the very act of telling them, these people found a resolution. Some of their stories had no real ending psychologically until I witnessed them. Time after time, my clients told me how much better they felt after they finished speaking. Sometimes no one else had heard them because the clients felt no one would listen, or that people would judge them or not believe them, or that they would feel unsafe or worse from telling it. Or they had luckily been heard, but needed the reinforcement of being heard again by clergy or any other sympathetic professional ear. My hearing them and the others who could do so too provided that last needed element, the listener, who acknowledged the reality of each story without challenging it to be other than it was. Their experience was real to them and recognized as so. The last chord had been sounded.

Right now I am the one telling my own story to you about that detail of administrative indifference hanging in the air. I am hurting because it was my turn to have my story be heard, the one about my having heard the stories of so many others over all those years, including the heart-wrenching tales of grievers who could not be with their dying loved ones during Covid. But now as you my readers are the ones receiving this story about my career of having heard so many stories, I do feel that closing chord. That petty administrative detail is receding further and further from my current concerns. I knew you would understand.

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For my former posts on retiring, including when you know it is time to retire, see: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/a-lightness-of-being/

For microblogging, see me at: https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

An Illustrated Excursion into an Alien State of Being

Since the painting below is so arresting, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you to take a good long look at it to see for yourself what it means to you, before peeking at my reaction below and that of the artist herself, Krista Dedrick Lai.

My first impression upon viewing Against the Storm was of cheerful swirls abstractly showing the Sun in the center surrounded with orange sky below and darkening clouds above as it starts to set. Other celestial objects draw us upwards. But then, wait! I see a distressed figure lying down towards the bottom, partly buried. She is just an outline, not a full figure. Is that a defiant foot I see raised up? Will she fight the storm? I am not sure. There is so much of “it” and so little of “her”.

Of this piece Krista herself explains, “As a person living with poorly defined and understood chronic illnesses I am seeking to convey the intensity and contradiction of what I experience internally and externally in Against the Storm as well as in other recent works. I want to create spaces of chaos that feel physically overwhelming to view and take up the viewer’s entire field of vision (72″ x 80″) as a way for them to sense how my physical and emotional experiences feel to me. Although it would be easy to dismiss someone like me as fragile or weak, the inverse is true: there is incredible strength and resilience formed from so many years of being forced to face myself and accept what so many of us struggle to accept; that we have limited control over our lives and that our realities, and indeed ourselves, are always in a state of flux.”

Now that you have not peeked at our comments until after you viewed the work, we would love to hear your interpretations in the comment section.

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Krista Dedrick Lai is a painter and mixed media artist living and working in south Philadelphia. Krista makes energetic, colorful and provocative paintings and mixed media pieces inspired by the energy and architecture of Philadelphia as well as experience as a woman, mother and person with chronic illness. Her work has been shown in a number of Philadelphia galleries such as Space 1026, High Five Gallery and Practice Gallery, as well as galleries in New Orleans, LA, Teaneck, NJ and Wilmington, DE. Krista shares a home with her husband and young son, where she also has an art studio. Her site is https://www.kristadedricklai.com/ and it is chock full of her art.

Winter Whining

I don’t want to be in a quarantine within a quarantine, the outdoors closed to me as well as my home being closed to others, just because a lower level winter godlet came up with the big bright idea of icing the stubbornly remaining mounds of snow with freezing drizzle. I step out to assess the sidewalk for my daily walk. Mmmkay, some mitzvahteer (good deeder) shoveled it without cutting corners. I could actually see the bare concrete itself as if it were getting ready for a sunbath. I get both feet to agree to make their next moves, congratulating myself for not letting a little chill intimidate me into a retreat. But then, after I reach the corner of the block, I stop short. The #@$!% did not shovel the snow away from the corner curb cut! There is a great hulking heap of it blocking my way! (Yes, they did not cut corners, but they did not shovel them either.) What good is it to have all that concrete screaming to me that it is all cleared of every last snowflake so that my undeserving self might indulge in prancing along it, only to thwart my progress once I reach the first intersection? What, I’m supposed to confine myself to pacing back and forth on one block? Or risk falling on ice- encrusted snow by clambering over a mountain range?

The snow on the curb consists of about 5% of the snow that had covered the rest of the sidewalk, more or less. But that neglected 5% casts a shadow on the remaining 95%, rendering it useless does it not? Now let’s think about that together. If someone can’t walk more than a few steps and a driver takes them 95% of the way and no further, that accomplishes nothing more than not to take the ride at all. Be aware of not finishing what you start. And there, my friends, is my profound moral for the day.

And now for the other matter I must bring up. If you are guilty of this, then I hope you feel thoroughly rebuked! Yes, it takes hours to diligently and thoroughly dig out a parking spot after a snowstorm, and yes, some spots are not fully finished (verging on the problem above). But: when I have left my spot, and someone has taken it ( who knows full well I did all that work on it), and THEN I look for another, and I see a good one but which has a garbage can or chair upon the center of it, I want to call the city. I don’t of course. I must not be thought of as a whiner. I just steam with indignation. And I don’t remove the offending object off to the side because the maniac might damage my car for taking THEIR alleged spot and removing THEIR property.

So I haphazardly park in an inferior spot, hearing lots of crunch crunching as I do so as if the car were being murdered. Then I leave, having to choose between clambering over another mountain range at one curb, or stepping up to my ankle in filthy slush at the other. I make it back inside my home as I whine some more at the irrationality and pettiness of others who let mere frozen water, in all of its manifestations, strip away all sense of community and empathy in a cold unfeeling world.

Her Most Memorable Cup Of Coffee

When we anticipate something major happening to the loved ones in our lives, we picture that it will occur in some dramatic context, almost with music materializing in the background like in the movies. Law professor and prolific author Roberta Rosenthal Kwall finds out that when key events happen to her parents late in their lives, that is not what it is like at all when she gets the news. When you read her story below, does it resonate with you? What were you in the middle of doing when a loved one fell or got very ill or died? Whatever it was, no matter how mundane, you will remember it forever.

“For most of my adult life, I did not live in geographic proximity to my parents. Shortly after my husband and I married and moved to Chicago, my parents moved to Florida where they lived for many years. We saw one another a few times a year and spoke at least weekly, often more. But during most of this time, I found it relatively easy to avoid too much focus on my parents’ mortality despite their occasional brushes with even some serious health conditions. Eventually, however, I had to confront the reality that they needed to move closer to me so I could step up my level of involvement on a daily basis. They moved to Chicago about two years before my father passed. Not surprisingly, this was not an easy sell given the harsh Chicago winters…

But soon my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and then my mother was hit by a car as she was crossing the street. I had to move my father to the nursing wing while my mother spent three months in the hospital and a rehab facility. Given the extent of her injuries and his progressing illness, my father needed to remain in the nursing section permanently.

Six months later, my father fell and broke his pelvis. His doctor predicted he had about a month to live given the nature of his injuries and the trajectory of Alzheimer’s patients who experience this type of injury. He was 100% on target. In a way, I was relieved because I never wanted to see my father in the end stages of this Alzheimer’s. At the time he passed away, he still more or less knew who I was and he could still communicate. Still, when the call came, it was almost sundown on a wintery Saturday afternoon and I was home reading a book. Despite his doctor’s prediction, the event still seemed unexpected and was a shock. I learned what it meant to expect the unexpected.

My mother passed away six-and-a-half years later, but although they both died at the age of 92, the circumstances were very different… Her last years were difficult physically but I want to believe they were also somewhat emotionally joyous. She saw our family all the time and even got to meet our daughters’ significant others and attend our oldest daughter’s wedding.

The last time I saw my mother was a beautiful sunny day right before my husband and I left for a trip to Italy. It was a short but sweet visit and she seemed stable and in good spirits. I never expected this to be the last time I would see her, although that thought always crossed my mind whenever I traveled. But two days into our trip I got a phone call informing me that she had passed away. We were at breakfast overlooking the Amalfi coast, and I was just about to take a sip of a delectable Italian coffee. Again, another case of expecting the unexpected. No matter how old your parents are, and how infirm, it is often the case that one just does not expect to receive the news that they have passed.”

© Roberta Rosenthal Kwall:Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved, from her book Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. Kwall is an internationally renowned scholar and lecturer and has published over 30 articles on a wide variety of topics including Jewish law and culture, authorship rights, and intellectual property. For more information on her book, go to this Amazon link: https://amzn.to/2kY8gFo

For my microblogging, you can go to https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

A Parody of Self-Help Posts

My husband Steve managed to combine a self-help parody with horror. A nice corrective to all the self-help stuff I have imposed on you throughout the years. Have fun and don’t read the story below too close to bedtime:

Tomorrow is a Bad Day

Hello, dear client. I have trouble remembering names so everyone to me is “dear client.” I’m your favorite self-help swami, Steven Jon, the regrettably unavoidable Kaplan. It’s too late to run and too tough to hide. I’m here to get your life back on track so you can go around and around the fateful wheel of your life with increasing confidence. All you need to do is to make a few minor changes to your daily routine. Our mantra is, “Tomorrow is a Bad Day.”

Yes, you heard that right. Since tomorrow is a bad day, especially for accomplishing anything important, we have to do the tough things today. You were planning on watching TV this evening? Forget about it. You’re going to sit down right now and not get up until you’ve finished a full page of that book you keep postponing. I’m going to watch to make sure. I conveniently have a whole dozen grade A jumbo raw eggs in the trunk of my car and your hair looks like a perfect place to make an omelet in case you don’t comply. Look, you paid me for this, right? So I’m not just going to let you get away with whatever you thought you were going to get away with. Tough love is my middle name.

I can read your mind and tell that you’re wondering if this was such a good idea after all. Trust me, it is. This is the best thing that has ever happened to you. As soon as you finish writing that page we’re going to edit it together and see how we can improve it. After that we’re going out to your back yard and we’re going to start a garden. I see you shaking your head, but anyone can do it. When you see something growing a little each day it will give you the extra encouragement you need to continue with your projects. Don’t worry, I have Siberian seeds which grow almost as well in the winter as they do the rest of the year. These plants will hardly care if it’s below freezing, if it’s snowing, if you’re a political prisoner, or anything else. Sure, you might not always be thrilled about having to go outdoors in the cold and dark, but you’ll learn to devote part of each day to something which will be around long after you’re gone.

Take a look at how you’re dressed. I understand that everyone is more sloppy these days with the coronavirus but there’s no excuse for not looking your best at all times. If you care about how you look to others then you’ll have more respect for yourself. Sure, it’s corny. But it works so you had better get into the habit of adding a tie whenever you put on a shirt. Speaking of your shirt, fold back those cuffs they way they do in those 1950s movies. That’s it. You’re a quick learner. You’ll be so surprised when you find yourself automatically listening to whatever I tell you and learning to go through your life in a completely different way.

What is your plan for tomorrow morning? It’s a bad day, remember? To make it less bad we’re going to try something I’m sure you’ve never done: we’re going to list the first five activities today that you want to do tomorrow morning. If you’ve always wanted to do anything with your life, anything at all, then you must confront it directly and not keep postponing it until that imaginary day or decade. Are you thinking about your personal five items? If you write down brushing or flossing your teeth then I’m going to have to use one of my eggs. I want to see five real action items, the kind of stuff you know you ought to do but you never quite get around to it. Try doing the first one now. Excellent! I see that you’ll be preparing the legacy you’re going to leave to this world when you depart. I knew you’d excel at this once we really got underway.

I’m not sure if I mentioned that I’m going to be staying with you overnight for the next month to ensure that you don’t try to evade your responsibilities. Don’t worry, I can fit into your bed one way or another and I’ve brought along my own favorite pillow. Before you go to sleep each night I’m going to take out my recorder and you’re going to spend exactly 2-1/2 minutes telling me what you learned during the day and how you fell short of your objectives. It’s all about the process.

You’re the best client I ever had. No, I don’t say that to everyone. I really mean it in my heart. You’re going to be a whole new you. Tomorrow is a bad day, but today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Biden Team’s Inner Chaplain: Covid-19 National Memorial Service

I wondered how I could talk about the presidential inauguration without being political. Answer: a ceremony the evening before that taps into one of the most elemental emotions of all humans and perhaps many animals as well: grief. The view opens on the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, subdued and peaceful as Cardinal Gregory comes up to speak. We see the Biden and the Harris couples in the background, distanced and masked. Cardinal Gregory says, “Our sorrow unites us to one another as a single people with compassionate hearts.” After his speech ends, I am temporarily puzzled as I watch an unknown person approach the lectern. But no, he is not going to speak, he is disinfecting it for the next speaker!

Kamala Harris conveys the message that it is one thing to grieve alone, but we attain another level of grieving as we do so together as a nation. She then introduces a “singing nurse” who has served in COVID-19 wings. The nurse sings Amazing Grace, and later, after the lectern is again disinfected, Joe Biden comes up to speak, looking to me at this moment just like a clergy person. And like a clergy person, he makes a moving profound statement: “to heal, we must remember. By remembering, that is how we heal.” During the speeches,we see an interpreter using sign language. But it is not just their hand gestures. The interpreters use their faces and arms to convey the mood of the speeches, like a minimalist dance supplementing the words themselves. As the ceremony concludes, it moves me so much as the camera pans the reflecting pool lighting up, that I cannot give more details without it being a spoiler. For emotional, spiritual, and yes patriotic healing, see this quarter-hour service: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSTqSYHwqzw&feature=youtu.be

Prayer Good For One Year Only

I heard on the radio that prayers are in high demand these days, so I decided to add one of my own. Naturally, it has to be offbeat as well as compassionate to make it into this blog, so do not expect the usual sort of thing. But you don’t have to brace yourself for anything disorienting either.

The smoothness of hair after a wash,

The dull colors of petals past their season,

The lullaby voice of a tranquil companion:

Let such softnesses reconnect us to calming presences.

The passion of a cougar on the run,

The burst of sound from a row of trumpets,

The creation of newcomers smashing into being in the birth canal of a galaxy:

Let such intensities blast away our distress and fling us forward to 2021.

Bill Bryson’s Banter In “The Lost Continent”

I don’t know if it is because I am giddy from just having retired from hospice work or what, but reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, is making me laugh so hard that my tears are contributing to the festivities. Last time I read a book like that is beyond the horizon of my memory. Here is what he has to say for example about Washington and the White House: “You feel as if you are in some agreeable provincial city, but then you turn a corner and there it is—the White House—right in the middle of the downtown.” And then as with much of his writing, he himself turns a corner and makes a comment that has nothing to do with the significance of the White House. He instead points out its pedestrian convenience for its inhabitants: “So handy for shopping.” A page or so later, talking about the Washington Mall and walking at night, he says, “I expected to be mugged–indeed, I took it as my due wandering in a city park like this on a dark night [sic]–but evidently the muggers couldn’t see me.” There he goes again, shifting your mind into an unexpected direction like a train jumping the tracks and somehow landing on an alternate set of them.

Throughout the book, he relentlessly pokes fun at or screams in dismay at anything in his travels that is tawdry or fake. He derides ripoffs for tourists and the hapless dullards who fall for those scams. Anything shoddy gets the sharpest linguistic ax in the shed, including discursive cursing. He demolishes anything whatsoever that comes his way during his travels. During a crushingly boring part of the drive, he turns on the radio. There is an ad about the Airport Barber Shop in Biloxi, followed by a scanty segment of news of the if-it-bleeds-it-leads variety. “Then there was another commercial for the Airport Barber Shop, in case you were so monumentally cretinous that you had forgotten about it during the previous thirty seconds of news.”

But boy when he approves of something that contributes quality, the aggressive humor evaporates and he sings accolades with the purity of one “who is as wholesome as a bottle of milk”, and whose worst sin to date is chewing gum in class. He crows, as if promoting an advertisement of his own, that we are lucky to have the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, because they bought and maintained Mount Vernon when no governmental body would do so. They restored it to every detail, “right down to the correct pigments of paint and patterns of wallpaper.”

While the book is funny, I have mixed feelings about recommending it here, as it is somewhat low on my compassion-meter. For example he makes fun of people in the South who pronounce their towns, such as Athens and Cairo, not as we learned in history class, but as Ay-thens and Kay-ro. I sort of laugh but also say “ouch” when he does not leave it alone and bites their residents with, “I don’t know whether the people in those towns pronounce them that way because they are backward, under-educated shitkickers who don’t know any better or whether they know better but don’t care that everybody thinks that they are under-educated shitkickers.”

The saving grace of the book is his intolerance for mediocrity, and high praise and encouragement of any one who is caring in any way about their town and any visitors that come their way. And even as I was writing this up, I could scarcely stop laughing. Perhaps this is all about my decompressing from having to hear almost exclusively heavy stories from people about death, dying and bereavement, and other attendant miseries since 2005. But the fact that I laughed until I cried may make it worth your gambling to see if this book does the same for you or whether that was merely a symptom of my two-week-old retirement.

Still unsure? I will give you one last indication of how objective I hope I am being here. Bryson’s humor reminds me of the comedian Stephen Wright, so if you like him, you can’t miss! Wright for example said during one of his stand-ups, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.” And one other: “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time.’ So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.” At any rate, we all know how badly we need a laugh these days, and if nothing else, I hope you got at least one here.