Saturday, December 24, 2011


Are you ready for Christmas once again?  I’m getting there . . .

When it came time to wrap the presents for tomorrow, I found my supply of coal depleted.  Nothing remained but a few crumbs. Local urchins must have been pilfering when I wasn’t looking.  Something had to be done, and fast.

I drove a few miles north to an area where the railroad runs close to Northeast street.  Parking the car in the weeds, I set off down the track.  A mile or so later, my objective came into sight:  the old University coaling station.

I walked down the line until I reached the end, where years of coal cars had covered the ground in fine black gravel.  Bending down to scoop a few handfuls, my eye was drawn by a glitter just ahead.


I’ve walked thought that area countless times, and realized I had missed it all those years.  Millions of pounds of coal had arrived through that siding, all to be burned at the University heating plant.  So what happened to the residue?  The ash and slag were cleaned out of the furnaces on a regular basis. 

Some of the ash was used by the Mortuary College, to train future crematory operators. Others in the same program practiced disposal, spreading the ash in a fine layer over the School of Farming’s fields.

They never did find a use for the hard, glittery slag.  In the end, the bigger chunks were piled next to the coal, and loaded onto trains for disposal somewhere out West.  Somewhere in the desert, whole neighborhoods have been built on University slag, held together with fine cemented fly ash.

The power station is long closed, replaced by an efficient nuclear reactor, but the siding remains, rusting away slowly.  The brightest gems of slag are gone, but I found enough glittery bits to make a special Christmas indeed.

Combined with a few handfuls of fine pebble coal, the effect will be memorable.

I’m off to get ready.  The kids are coming soon.

Friday, December 23, 2011


This morning one of the guys at work showed up with a doll for his kid.  Look, he showed me, it pees and poops!  I turned it over and sure enough, it did.  Looking at the box, I saw the thing was a product of a major toy company, to boot.

It reminded me of some of the other toy ideas that passed before our eyes, back when I worked in R&D at Milton Bradley.

For example, there was Baby Black And Blue.   BB and B had a special plastic skin, that changed color if you grabbed her by the legs and whacked her hard against a tabletop.   Just like a real baby. 

That one never saw the light of day, or the light of stores.

Then there was Feed the Alligators.  That was a two person game, where one kid operated the mouth on a wooden alligator, and the second kid operated a little seesaw that launched little babies toward the water.

I remember playing that game for real, when the big bully kids would launch me and the other tykes off our seesaws.  We learned to exit fast when we saw them coming, lest we go aerial.

F t A was actually sold, for some years.  You can probably buy a copy yourself on ebay.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Gift and an Opportunity for Christmas

Have you ever looked at the men and women who ring bells, accept donations, and hand out little gifts outside our malls and thought: I wish I could do that!  Help the needy and raise some cash for a drink or even a gift?  

Well, now you can. All you need is a can for the money, and a sack of Perfect Gifts for the Needy. Coal is widely recognized as the stocking stuffer par excellence, and of course it's good for blacksmithing, home heating, and even power generation. In its natural form, it's a smooth and beautiful black, waterproof and durable. A gift for the ages. Think of each stone as a diamond that didn't quite make it.

My friends at Penn Keystone have all you need. They can sell you fifty pounds, bagged, for less than thirty cents a pound. Compare that to the prices at Toys R Us, or Macys! Fifty pounds of anything from those stores will cost far more than fifteen measly dollars!

Give them a try; you won't be disappointed. Remember - Real Santas use Real Coal. American Coal.  Accept no substitutes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On the road with April Wine

Every country has it's big rock and roll bands.  We Americans assume the bands that are big here, are big all over the world.  In some cases, that's true.  But every country has its own musicians, some of whom are very popular at home while being totally unknown here.

That's the case right here in Canada, where April Wine is huge all over, yet few in the USA have ever heard of them.  Founded in the 70s they are still on tour today.

April Wine will always be special to me, because I turned 21 on the road with them, riding the ferry to Newfoundland the night of August 13, 1978.

Yesterday I was going to through old papers, and I found my April Wine tour schedule, my tour pass, and an old sound system slide rule calculator.

Lots of people think touring with a band is glamorous, but it's hard, hard work.  This tour had gone on the road in July, touring the Calgary Stampede, and hockey rinks across eastern Canada.  After a short break, the tour resumed August 15 at Humber Gardens, a big barroom in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland.  We played till midnight, then tore down the gear, packed it, and hauled everything through the night to the next night's show at Grand Falls.  We did another one night stand there, and played Marystown the next night.  Then we got a break with two nights at Memorial Stadium in St. Johns.

After that, the tour calendar optimistically says "OFF" for three days, but what we really did was pack all that gear into cases and ferry it to Nova Scotia for the next leg of the tour.  It may have been "OFF" for the musicians, but it most assuredly was not off for us.

Most all our shows sold out; the tour was a huge success for the band.  It was hard work for me, and everyone else who made it happen.

Canadian readers will find a story about April Wine in the opening of Be Different, which goes on sale across Canada in paperback this March.

Looking at the tour pass, you can see how I made a lanyard from folded duct tape.  Lanyard cord was scarce, but we always had plenty of tape! 


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Love is blind - Marriage is the eye-opener

This afternoon, I'm pleased to present a guest blog from my friend and fellow author David Finch, whose Journal of Best Practices makes its debut in bookstores in just three more weeks . . . 

When people meet me for the first time, they’re often surprised to learn that I have Asperger syndrome.  “Oh, my,” they say, sometimes slowly and clearly, as though they’re now addressing a child.  “It is really remarkable how well you’re able to handle yourself socially.” 
            As compliments go, it’s not so bad.  Still, I can’t help but feel a little like an unfrozen Neanderthal when I hear comments like that.  “You mean to tell me you’re only thirty-four years old and you managed to come here all by yourself?” The implication is that two minutes ago I was just another dude standing around in a sport coat, smiling unexpectedly, but now that I’ve outed myself, I’m Asperger Guy, and it’s a wonder I haven’t been yapping the whole time about pygmy fruit bats or the history of the shoe.
            What can I say?  People are bound to be surprised.  One of my special talents is masking certain behaviors, a skill set I’ve been cultivating since childhood, when began my lifelong career of wanting to blend in.  Even I didn’t know I had Asperger’s until I was thirty years old; the prevailing diagnosis throughout my early life was that I was peculiar.  Talk to me long enough, or catch a glimpse of me lumbering around the cocktail party, and you’d find this assessment still to be fairly accurate.  But at first glance, you might not call it Asperger’s.  This is not uncommon.  Some with Asperger’s may appear more or less not-Aspergian depending on the circumstances.  I could possibly elude a diagnosis if I assumed the right character while talking to a psychologist for an hour or two.
            My wife, Kristen, knows this all too well.  We had been friends for years—I was always that special (dorky) friend of hers, the quirky one who made her laugh in a certain way that no one else could—and one day, we found ourselves in love.  We dated for a year, a period of time that, in some ways, felt like a twelve-month-long audition.  Be cool, I told myself, roughly ten-thousand times a day.  Look normal.  Act normal. 
            We got engaged, and still I did everything I could to impress her, because, as I understood it, that’s what a person did when they landed themselves a fiancĂ©e.  I showered Kristen with affection and praise, went out of my way to act supportive, and never once voiced a negative thought or feeling.  What was not to love about that guy?
            After we were married, and we were living together around the clock, Kristen began to understand exactly what was hard to love about that guy: he wasn’t entirely real. By our third anniversary, the illusion I’d created had been shattered, and Kristen found herself married not to the husband she’d always wanted, but to a husband who had no idea how to go with the flow.  A husband who lost his temper whenever his concentration was disrupted—even when it was disrupted by an act of affection, such as a kiss or a simple hello.  A husband who couldn’t show her the kind of support she needed.
            Despite the fact that she had been working with children with autism for several years, Kristen hadn’t recognized my mixed bag of baffling behaviors and frequent man-tantrums as Asperger’s (of course, no one else, including me, had recognized this either).  We had been married nearly five years before her suspicions reached an apogee and she realized I could actually be on the spectrum.  Some are amazed by this, but it does not surprise me at all.
            A toad analogy, if I may.  I’ve been told that if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to escape, but if you place a frog in a pot of water at room temperature and gradually bring it to a boil, the frog will not try to escape; it’ll just boil to death.  (I don’t know who on earth conducted these experiments, but I like to think it’s true.  We can also assume that I’ll be the one in hot water for making my wife a frog in my own analogy...)
            Marriage can be a slow boil.  When you’re married, and things aren’t going so great, the threshold of pain and drama and wackiness tends to creep up imperceptibly as you go about your daily lives.  If, when you were blissfully dating, you could somehow fast-forward to a period in your marriage when that threshold of pain is unfathomably high—five, ten, fifteen years into the future—you would experience the darkness all at once, and you might decide to walk away from the relationship, to leap from the pot.  It would be that alarming.  “Good lord, is this what our marriage is going to look like?!  Welp, nice knowing you, do not keep in touch.”   But life doesn’t work that way.  Instead, you just sit in the pot, day after day, and boil to death, acclimated for better or for worse to the suffocating conditions. 
            There is another reason we wouldn’t have thought to call it Asperger’s sooner: I had never expressed to Kristen just how challenging certain situations were for me.  Like how difficult it was to navigate social interactions, how exhausting it was for me to be “on” around other people, or how upsetting it was whenever my routine was disturbed.  I hadn’t spent a great deal of time contemplating these things about myself.  All I knew was that I seemed different from other people, yet prior to my diagnosis I just wanted to fit in.  I wanted to seem, for lack of a better term and knowing full well that a word such as the one I’m about to use can swiftly, if unintentionally, stoke the ire of commenters everywhere, normal.  As a guy who assigned unique personalities to numbers, was it asking too much to seem normal?  I mean, who wants to think of themselves as being inferior?  Who wouldn’t feel inferior if they were being mocked on a regular basis, even as an adult?  Who has the presence of mind to say yes to their freaky, extraordinary selves, especially if they don’t know it’s okay—nay, advantageous—to be different?
            So, how could Kristen have known what it was like to be me?  I barely knew what it was like to be me—I didn’t even know there was a clinical name for being like me.
 When she realized how many similarities I had with Aspergians, Kristen sat me down and guided me through a very informal evaluation.  Though I am grateful to be married to someone who doesn’t spend her days regarding me through a diagnostic lens, I’m glad that Kristen instinctually pieced it together and invited me to participate in the evaluation.  A person can learn a lot about himself when he answers more than a hundred questions designed to reveal precisely how his mind works.  For the first time I understood who I am.  And Kristen finally understood, too.
            Until we went through that exercise, she could not possibly have known just how difficult it was for me to adapt to things, or how great a challenge it was for me just to understand how to be responsive to her needs.  Or, in her words: “I never could have imagined how hard it sometimes is for you to simply be.”
            That’s how Asperger syndrome can so thoroughly destroy a relationship that at one time seemed invulnerable.  If it’s well-hidden, and you’re not specifically looking for it, the condition can reveal itself slowly, one misunderstanding and baffling meltdown at a time.  But for Kristen and me it’s no longer hidden, and we used this knowledge of the so-called disorder to rebuild our marriage.  With my diagnosis she found patience and understanding, I found self-acceptance and the will to learn to manage the behaviors that strained our relationship, and together—together—we are finding our way to the marriage we always wanted.
            And it makes me wonder, as I sit here scripting tomorrow’s inevitable didactic lecture on pygmy fruit bats: How many of us are struggling with something that reveals itself in such cruelly deceptive ways?  How many of us are plainly misunderstood, even by those who know and love us best? 

David Finch is an author and lecturer.  His debut memoir, THE JOURNAL OF BEST PRACTICES (Scribner; January 3, 2012) is available for pre-order now.  David lives in Illinois with his wife and their two children.  Please join him on Facebook.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Some thoughts on the trades

This weekend I finished another excellent book about our economy, and how we might recover from recession.  One of the suggestions was that we should become better educated, as a society.  To bolster that point, the author talked about college graduation rates, and the limited prospects for non-college-graduates who end up with low paying service jobs.

Where are the trades, in that writer’s mind?

I can just hear the answer now . . . Trades?  What are trades?

All too often, writers divide the world of work into “educated and professional” labor performed by college graduates, and “minimum wage service work” performed by the unwashed masses; those of us who did not make it out of college or perhaps even out of high school.

That depiction does a great disservice to our young people as they contemplate their future career paths.  For the trades still offer tremendous opportunity, and they are overlooked more and more today.

So what are the trades, you ask?  Trades are specialized jobs that are taught by doing.  People who work in the trades use both their hands and their minds to reason through problems and produce tangible results.  In years past you learned a trade by being an apprentice.  Today, you might learn a trade at a trade school, or academy.  And some apprentice programs still exist. 

Examples of trades are:
Auto, truck, or airplane mechanic
Computer service technician
Medical equipment service technician
Heavy equipment operator

All of those jobs require substantial skill that is developed through both study and practice, and all have different levels.  One starts out at low wages as an apprentice, while masters make as much as most people in “professional” jobs.

The next step up from being a master is to own a small business that employs other tradesmen. Examples are my auto service company, or a local electrical contractor.  Owners of successful trade business can make as much or more money than even high-level professionals, like doctors or lawyers.

Yet the path to success does not generally pass through a college and it is often overlooked.

There are three hundred million people here in America.  It’s tradesmen who construct the places where we live.  Tradesmen bring us the electric power, and the plumbing.   Tradesmen fix our cars and trucks.  The beauty of the trades is that they are not going anywhere.  No one is outsourcing those jobs to India or China. 

It’s true that the trades change.  The job of fixing cars has changed tremendously over the past twenty years, as has the job of wiring a house or even installing plumbing.  But everything changes.  We all have to learn and adapt.

In some cases, fewer workers are needed in a given area.  Construction trades are a good example of that today.  With the housing collapse, we have a surplus of tradesmen who know how to work new construction.  Yet we still have jobs in other trades, like auto repair, and we even have jobs for carpenters, plumbers and electricians in repair and maintenance. 

I find working on things I can pick up and handle very satisfying.  I know many other tradesmen feel the same.  I like to fix something, see it work, and know it’s a job well done.  That sense of personal connection and satisfaction is missing in all too many jobs today.

Tradesmen keep our world running.  When your lights go out, you don't turn to an investment banker for help.

So why are the trades overlooked and dismissed?  Maybe it’s time for a second glance . . .