MR. CASTEN’S CLUTTER – Rich Paschall

Stuff, by Rich Paschall

Only his neighbor Jorge knew the old guy was sick.  In fact, Mr. Casten had been failing for almost two years.  Whenever Jorge saw the old man, he asked if there was anything he could do to help.  When Mr. Casten was not seen for a week, Jorge would go knock on his door.  If the old guy felt well enough he would stand in the doorway and talk for a while.  If it was morning, he would invite Jorge in for a cup of coffee.

By the time Casten had passed away, Jorge probably knew him as well as anyone.  Their little chats on the stairs, in the doorway or at the kitchen table revealed a lot about an old guy who had lived alone in the same small apartment most of his adult life.  The place was stuffed with memories and memorabilia.

Mr. Casten had collected and saved things throughout life, but in the last few years he tried to de-clutter his small existence.  He gave things away to charity resale shops.  He sent pictures he had from his parents on to other relatives.  He even sold some items on eBay.  It was all too late to clean up the house, however.  Mr. Casten’s small efforts were not enough after a lifetime of accumulation.

Since there were no siblings, no children, and no mate, the matter of cleanup and disposal was left to a crew of cousins. Jorge knew just who to call because Mr. Casten had prepared a list of contacts in case of his untimely demise. Although Mr. Casten was only in his late 60’s, his death arrived right on schedule the way Jorge saw it. Mr. Casten had gone as far as he could.

When the cousins arrived one Saturday morning to clean out the apartment, Jorge was waiting with the key that had been entrusted to him by Mr. Casten.  Four cousins and two of their teen age sons figured they would make fast work of the four room apartment.  They figured wrong.

“Oh my, who knew one person could collect so much stuff,” cousin Raymond declared.  “This could take all day!”

“Mr. Casten said to tell you guys to be sure to take for yourselves anything you want, then give anything else that is still good to charity.”

“And did you take something, Jorge?” cousin David said in a rather accusing tone.

“Yes,” Jorge replied calmly.  “I took the coffee cup he always gave me to drink out of.  It was the only thing I wanted.”

“Well, I heard he had a good baseball card collection,” cousin Jeff chimed in.  “I would like to have that if we can find it.”

“He’s got a lot of CDs here,” Raymond said in amazement.  “I think I will see what I need.”

“Hey dad,” one of the teenagers shouted out to David.  “He’s got a lot of DVDs. I am going to see if he has anything decent to watch”

As they randomly picked through the goods, cousin John grabbed one of the teenagers and said, “Let’s get to work.  With those guys working so hard out there, we will never get out of here!”

So John and a bored teenager went to the kitchen in search of large garbage bags.  “Under the sink,” Jorge instructed.

Armed with a box of bags, Jorge, John and the teenager went to the bedroom to empty closets and drawers.  John told the teenager to take everything in the closets and put it in bags for donation.  If it looked in bad shape, he should put it in a separate bag for the garbage.  John decided to do the same with the dresser.

As John and Jorge took items from the dresser, they found many new things in each drawer.  There were clothes with tags, new socks and underwear in packages, pajamas that were never worn and sweaters that looked new.

“I thought the old guy could not afford much,” John said in amazement.

“I think he was always afraid of running out of something,” Jorge said.  “He told me more than once that he was afraid to be poor and have nothing, so he kept everything and did not use anything until he needed it.”

“If he lived another 10 years he would not have to buy any clothes,” John said somewhat incredulously.

“Yeah, I think that was the idea,” Jorge noted.

Mr. Casten’s mother had grown up in the Great Depression.  She had nothing, so in her adult life she saved everything.  Anything that had value or possible use, she would save for whenever she might need it.  Of course, she had many things she never used, but they were there “just in case.”

When Casten was young, he knew they did not have much and he saw how his mother managed to get through the years with what they accumulated.  He naturally took on the same habits.  While everything may have seemed a jumbled mess to outside observers, especially cousins who never came to call, it was an organized home for Mr. Casten.

After many runs to the resale shop and the outside garbage cans, the crew had made a good deal of progress.  John declared he would return with one of the boys to finish the job the next day.

“That box in the corner marked pictures should also say ‘Cousins’ on the top,” Jorge remembered to tell them. “You should take that with you.”

“What would we want with a box of old pictures?” David said rather sarcastically.

So Jorge explained that collection.  “Mr. Casten thought that maybe someone would want to see them at a wake or service to remember how he looked, since he had not been invited to any family event in years.  I would guess you guys would be in a lot of those pictures from long ago.”

The cousins said nothing.  John grabbed the box on the way out.

Jorge closed the door.

See also: “The Accumulation of Stuff,” Reducing Clutter

NATIONAL AND PERSONAL TRAGEDIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Everyone who was over the age of five on November 22, 1963, remembers where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. It was a seminal moment in most people’s lives.

I was in a ninth grade math class taught by my crusty, no nonsense math teacher, Miss Rosenthal. It was the last class on a Friday and I was sitting next to the window in the front row.

Me around ninth grade

I suddenly heard shouting outside on the front walkway and saw kids gathering and talking animatedly. Miss Rosenthal got annoyed at me for looking out the window and told me to face front and pay attention. I protested that something was going on outside but Miss Rosenthal didn’t care. She insisted I stay focused on the class and ignore the crowd growing just a few feet away from me. When we went back to school on Monday, Miss Rosenthal apologized to the class for preventing us from hearing the breaking news sooner.

As soon as class was over, we were accosted by kids in the hallway with reports of JFK’s shooting. In a haze, I went to my locker, got my coat and went outside. By the time I got to the front door, everyone was hysterical because JFK had died.

We were all crying on the car ride home. I spent the entire weekend watching the round the clock coverage of the death and the funeral. I saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live TV. I shared this grueling experience with most of the country – the first time we all went through a national crisis together in that way.

Oswald getting shot on live TV

In contrast, my mother was out shopping that Friday afternoon. She was looking at sets of China and fell in love with an expensive set that was way above her budget. She reluctantly left the store but was proud of her frugality. She immediately heard the news about JFK’s assassination. Her reaction, after horror and sorrow, was “Life is short”. So she turned around, went back into the china shop and bought the china! That’s my mom in a nutshell – a president’s assassination translates into the purchase of something beautiful.

My mom around 1963 all dolled-up to go out

I actually saw John F. Kennedy up close, in person, twice. The first time, his car slowly passed ours on the FDR Drive. He was in a convertible with the top down and his hair was blowing in the wind. He was charismatic. The second time, he was president and his motorcade was driving up Park Avenue, in New York City, the street I lived on. I was about twelve and was walking home. I stopped and stood in the street to catch a glimpse of his car. I saw him clearly through the window and I waved to him. As I watched the car drive past me, Kennedy turned around and waved back at me. There was no one else there that he could have been looking at! I was thrilled and I can still see his face in my mind.

JFK

Later in high school, I had a different experience with death. My best friend, Anne, lived a few blocks from me and we spent a lot of time together. One day, Anne’s father pulled me aside. He told me that Anne’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he wanted me to be the one to tell her. I was in eleventh grade! I was shocked and terrified. But he pleaded with me and said he just couldn’t do it himself.

When Anne was visiting, I sat her down in my comfy chair and gave her the bad news. As I had expected, she wanted to go right home and be with her parents. Her mother died a few months later.

My friend Anne in her Senior Yearbook photo

Unbelievably, this scenario repeated itself the very next year! In our senior year in high school, Anne’s father was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her Aunt Edna, her father’s sister, was very close to the family. She came to me and, again, asked if I would tell Anne that she was losing her sole remaining parent. I protested but Edna said that she and her brother didn’t want to be the ones to break the news to Anne.

So, again, I sat Anne down and gave her the life-changing news. This was devastating for me as well as for her. We both cried. When her dad died later that year, Aunt Edna moved in with Anne and became her permanent mother and father.

My senior yearbook photo

Anne and I stayed friends through college but then lost touch. We only reconnected, by email, after our 40th high school reunion, over ten years ago. She was a lawyer, was married and had two grown daughters. She seemed content with her life and I felt relieved to know that she had landed on her feet after her early tragedies.

So my high school years had different but powerful brushes with death that helped shape who I am and how I deal with tragedy and death.

REMORSE, REGRET, AND WISHFUL THINKING – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Remorse

I think the remorse I felt has — with the years — slid into wondering what would have happened if I had done the other thing rather than whatever I did. Remorse, like anger and rage, is self-destructive. It doesn’t solve a problem. From a personal point of view, it makes it worse. It makes you worse.

You can regret and move on. You can wish you could do it again … and still move on. But remorse? You need either a priest to give you absolution or an actual encounter to let you make amends. There’s no “thinking your way back.” So for many of us now, where we felt remorse, it has been replaced by wishful thinking and perhaps regrets.

Remorse is meaningless when there’s nothing to be done, especially if it is something that is highly unlikely to ever be repeated. If you cannot solve the problem, you can’t fix it. Remorse — like obsession and rage — has no useful place when the original issue has gone forever.

When the object of remorse has vanished to another world, it’s time to move on unless depression and rage are your “thing.”

INTO MEMORY – Rich Paschall

In Memoriam 2018, Rich Paschall

Many people go into our memories as the years go by.  Some will linger there always.  Some will pass by for a fleeting moment, remembered and then forgotten, as the years put clouds in front of them. Some memories we will cherish always, some not at all.

This past year, as in those preceding it, awards shows and year-end retrospectives highlight those we have lost through their “In Memoriam.”  This phrase is from the Latin term meaning “into memory” so it is into our memories we commend those who have left but meant much to us in our lives.

These passings do not only bring sadness for those who are gone, but they also remind us that we are entering a later time in the autumns of our lives. For this thought, we also have sadness for ourselves, knowing winter is near.

I will offer ten names that meant a lot to me in the past.  There will be no numbers.  It is not a top ten in the usual sense.  I looked over some lists and picked ten that have been committed fondly into my memory.  You may add yours in the comments.

Stan Lee

On the short list, I also had Sen. John McCain, although I disagreed with him often.  There was Stan Lee for creating the comic universe of superheroes. Also listed was Stephen Hawking, who had a beautiful mind locked in a diseased and twisted body.  The prolific playwright Neil Simon brought us many great movies and plays. Also passing was the former lead of Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin, and the lead of the Irish pop group Cranberries, Dolores O’Riordan, who died too young (46).

Waving a fond goodbye but staying forever in my memory:

Jerry Van Dyke, 86.  The younger brother of Dick Van Dyke began his career by playing Rob Petrie’s younger brother in a few episodes of the Dick Van Dyke show.  He is most fondly remembered as an assistant in the long-running sitcom, Coach.

Nanette Fabray, 97. She began her career in vaudeville.  I remember her as someone who appeared frequently on the early variety shows of television and later as a frequent game show guest.  She fought to show the importance of closed captioning in media, as she had been losing her hearing for many years.  Here she performs in the musical “the Band Wagon:”

Tab Hunter, 86.  The actor, singer, and writer became a movie star in the 1950s and ’60s.  He was a teen heart-throb to many young girls and a few young guys too.  He had a number one hit with “Young Love,” although this 1957 performance on the Perry Como Show may not have been his best effort.  At least you will get to hear the girls scream:

Harry Anderson, 65.  The magician and comedian scored two successful comedy series on television.  The first was the long-running Night Court where he played the judge of a Manhattan court at night.  Next up was Dave’s World, loosely based on writings of Dave Barry.

Burt Reynolds, 82.  Although he had many iconic movie roles as well as highly regarded television series, I enjoyed him most in the sitcom Evening Shade. My memory recalls it as a thoughtful, well-written program with a top-notch ensemble cast.

John Mahoney, 77.  The veteran stage and movie actor will be best remembered as the dad on Frasier (and Niles) on the sitcom of the same name.  Locally, John was often seen on stage in Chicago in productions of the renowned Steppenwolf Theater.

Roy Clark, 85.  The country singer and musician played host on the variety show, Hee Haw. Think of Laugh-In populated with country “hicks.” Having many southern relatives, we were greatly amused by this show and watched regularly.

Bill Daily, 91.  Daily was born in Des Moines, Iowa but the family moved to Chicago.  He graduated from high school in my neighborhood (long before my time) and went to the famous Goodman Theater school here.  He scored two successful stints as a sidekick on television, one in I Dream of Jeannie and the other was the Bob Newhart Show.

Penny Marshall, 75.  Best known for playing Laverne on the Happy Days spin-off, Laverne & Shirley, Marshall went on the be a well-respected producer and director.  “Big” is a favorite film, the first one directed by a woman to gross more than 100 million dollars.

Aretha Franklin, 76.  The Queen of Soul earned a lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T in her life.  The talented singer and musician excelled in many musical categories and earned her place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The Chicago based musical Blues Brothers is a favorite with us and the following is one of the best numbers in the film.

MY DAY: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE RIDICULOUS – Marilyn Armstrong

So I looked at last year’s stats and realized I did well, stat wise. And I also posted more than 600 MORE pieces than I did in any previous year. That explains a lot of why I feel so pressured.

I understand there seems to be some kind of race to see who can post the most. I got a bit swept up in it. Whereas I used to post three posts a day and thought that was pretty good, the ante went up. Now I’m back down to four and working on getting back to three or even two.

My day starts off late. I sleep late. Not as late as some people I know, but I’m not a dawn riser because I get to bed late, too. Unless I am not feeling well, I like hanging out in bed in the morning. This particular morning I was up early because I was thirsty.

I went to the kitchen to get something cold and wet. While I was there, I sent the dogs out. They went out. They came back in. I gave them a treat which made them were happy.

Two well-fed Chickadees

Since I was up anyway, I looked to see what animals were on my deck and it turned out, there was a squirrel convention in progress.

All those seeds we spilled on the deck? The squirrels were cleaning up. Good squirrels! No birds yet, just squirrels. I could have tried taking pictures, but I chose to go back to bed. I know. Very lame, but I was tired.

Really getting into his food

When I did get up, a few hours later, I realized we had a lot of birds on the deck. Flocks of Chickadees and the Titmouse were flying at the feeder, grabbing seeds and flying off. They were on the feeder, in the trees, on the table, on the deck, on the railing — and in both feeders. It was a relatively warm, sunny day and they were eating their hearts out.

I took pictures. Before I got to take the SD chip to the computer, a Red-Bellied Woodpecker needed photographing. He didn’t stay long because the Chickadees were not going two days without eating because the woodpeckers took over.

I took more pictures. Then I took out the chip and put a new one in … and then there were even more birds, so I took more pictures. At that point, my need for coffee overcame all other needs.

I downloaded all the picture — all 140 of them. I hadn’t even left the house. I never did get around to backing up December. I guess I’ll do that tomorrow. Garry has one of his “old media guys” get-togethers tomorrow, so while he’s schmoozing, I’ll back up my computer. Unless I wind up taking more pictures. I also have to remember to give the dogs their heartworm meds.

And go grocery shopping. Because I didn’t go today.

Junco, one of the walking birds

Somewhere in there, I’ll write something, if I have the time. If not, the world will have to cope with a little less of me.

It’s no wonder I don’t have any time to do anything but blog, run errands, and catch a few hours of sleep. There isn’t enough time to do anything else. I’m pretty sure there’s gotta be a better way.

On a positive note, taking pictures of birds has saved me from an endless preoccupation with the horrors of the world. Our government, the rest of the world’s horrors, the condition of the planet, and the likelihood we’ll wind up without a planet we can live in slightly more than a decade. There’s a lot of potential obsessing in that bundle and I’m grateful to have something else to do with my brain.

Nuthatch with Chickadee

Tonight on television they were selling burial insurance. It was a very pushy ad. For free, you can get a copy of “Things to Take Do Before You Kick The Bucket” or something like that. It’s free! It gives you lists of stuff you need to deal with so you can be buried. Garry laughed. I laughed. We’ll deal with it when it happens. I refuse to sit and write-up lists of what to do before I die so my dying will be neat and tidy.

I lived a messy life. I might as well die a messy death.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN: AN INTERVIEW WITH DEATH – Marilyn Armstrong

My fame as An Important Blogger has spread beyond the realm of the living into the nether regions as I went searching for a character to interview. Death popped right up and volunteered. I wasn’t sure he was entirely fictional but eventually decided most people don’t believe he’s real, so he qualifies.

He has been hanging around here far too much lately.

When you meet Death, your first impression is of a quiet, retiring fellow. The kind of guy you’d never even notice. He walks silently, accompanied only by a faint rustling, like fabric gently ruffled by a breeze. You notice his nearness when folks disappear permanently. Like in a bad science fiction movie, characters keep vanishing without a trace.

I suppose it goes with the territory, but I have a few questions for the old buzzard.  Speaking of old,  Death does not look old. His face is unlined. He could be forty. Or two hundred and forty. His voice seemed a murmur, yet I had no trouble hearing every word he spoke. I didn’t know a stage whisper could be so loud.

Let the interview commence!


ME: I know you get everyone, eventually. It seems you’ve been taking away my crowd. Is this a Karmic thing? Have we been particularly wicked?

DEATH: Not really. You’re a hard-living crowd, but not bad in the sense of righteous or not righteous. Everyone gets a limited amount of hard living. A lot of your kinsmen used up their portion early.

ME: So partying causes an early demise?

DEATH: Not partying. Living hard. That includes working hard, worrying, not resting properly. Wears out your spirit, not just your bones. Of course, there is also a DNA component. Some of you are heartier than others. You have bodies — and souls — that can take more abuse. And the opposite. Some people aren’t resilient.

ME: Abuse? What do you mean by “abuse?”

DEATH: Drugs, booze. Insufficient sleep. Stress. Danger. Never taking the time to step back and understand what’s happened to you. It’s all part of the equation.

ME: I don’t suppose you’d let me in on the equation? Like how you calculate life and death?

DEATH: {Looks amused}

ME: Moving right along, is there anything we can do to score a few extra points with you? On the plus side, I mean.

DEATH: I’m tough but fair. Like a good coach.

ME: I never played on a team.

DEATH: Let us not bandy words. You get my drift. They use that line on every cop show on television. I know you watch TV. I’ve come round and sat with you on many an evening.

ME: {I shiver} Maybe too much television.

DEATH: Television is good stuff. Extends your life. I’m such a fan! {Death chuckles and sends a chill down my spine} Unless I’m under special orders, I never take anyone who’s watching a good show or a playoff game. Have I mentioned how much I loved Law & Order? That was a great show. I was upset when it ended. I related to it.

ME: How’s that?

DEATH: Catching bad guys, making judgments. Deciding whether to lock them up forever or hand them to me. Well, I can tell you, we don’t “do” locking up where I come from. I always take’em out of the game.

ME: So there’s no Hell?

DEATH: Did I say that?

ME: Never mind. Why so many good people? Young people? Even little children and babies?

DEATH: I have a degree of discretion, but if the Boss says “that one,” there’s no further discussion. He’s got his agenda. I follow orders. Age, sex, ethnicity, color. Sexual orientation. Don’t care, don’t discriminate. To me — us — you’re all customers.

{This made me uncomfortable. I shifted in my seat. Death noticed, of course. I could see the twinkle in his pale eyes. He was enjoying my discomfort.}

DEATH: We met before. Yes, I remember. You were young the first time. A teenager. But I was told you could choose to stay or go. You stayed. Not many people get to choose. Before you ask, I have no idea why. Just following orders. Then … what, ten, twelve years ago? You were in my court, but someone in the boss’s office told me to push you back to the other side. How did that work out for you?

ME: Obviously it worked. I’m here.

DEATH: I congratulate you. You are one of the few I’ve brushed against twice who’s still on this side.

Death cust serv

At that point, I realized I needed to end the interview. Beads of sweat were breaking out along the back of my neck. I didn’t like the way my interviewee was looking at me. I felt like a bag of potatoes in a supermarket.

ME: Time to wrap this up.

DEATH: {Grinning} You think, probie?

ME: I just wanted to ask you a couple of quick questions about some of your movie roles.

DEATH: “The Seventh Seal (1957)” — Ingmar Bergman’s black & white classic — is by far my favorite. I think I should have gotten a nomination at least. After that — John Huston’s 1969 “A Walk with Love and Death” was pretty good.

ME: Do you have favorite periods in history?

DEATH: You can’t beat the 14th century. I was the King of all I surveyed! I ruled. All good things come to an end, I suppose. Not to worry. My time will come again. From the way you humans are messing around with the Earth, not to mention breeding lethal viruses in labs? I’d say it’ll be my time again soon. That whole fracking thing. Wow, what could go wrong with that, eh?

I also want to mention war. I love war. That humans make war is how I know you love me. Sending off your best and brightest to die in the mud — stabbed, shot, mutilated, mowed down. Blown up. Shattered. It’s a love poem to me.

ME: Well, that’s about all the time we have for today. Let’s get together again real soon.

DEATH: {Evil smile} I think the next time we meet will be the last time.

And he gathered up his black robes and slid from the room, dark as a shadow, soundlessly.

{Fade to black}

JAMES ‘WHITEY’ BULGER DEAD IN PRISON – Marilyn Armstrong

“WHITEY” BULGER DEAD AT 89

They could have found him sooner had they tried harder.

It took them 16 years to find him. A lot of people knew where he was or knew enough to ask the right questions from the right people and get the correct answer.

If they had wanted to. But he was a dangerous guy with powerful friends. A dangerous guy with a brother who was a powerful figure in Boston’s government too.

Two brothers. So different. One becomes (eventually) the top guy at the University of Massachusetts. A really popular guy, too. Funny, witty, educated. But his brother — Whitey — was a killer. How does that happen? What kind of family dynamics produce the head of a mob and the head of the university?

I think every general assignment reporter in Boston had some inkling of his location, including my husband who never said so because he never talks about “the mob,” not when we were young or now … but I was sure he knew a lot more than he said. The FBI knew because they used him as a source for decades and paid him for it, too.

He was supposedly some kind of a “Robin Hood” in Southie. Maybe for his friends, he was. For everyone else, he was a murderous thug. Eventually, it all broke open and he went to prison and died there today.

Former mob boss and fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger, who was arrested in Santa Monica, California on June 22, 2011 along with his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig is shown in this 2011 booking photo. In the opening of the murder and racketeering trial on June 12, 2013, prosecutors described Bulger, 83, as the leader of a criminal gang responsible for decades of “murder and mayhem.” Prosecutors say 19 people were killed by Bulger’s hand or at his order. REUTERS/U.S. Marshals Service/U.S. Department of Justice/Handout via Reuters

His brother, who I’m sure always knew how to find him, leaped from his office and floated down on a golden parachute.

The feared leader of the Winter Hill Gang, “Whitey” Bulger was convicted (finally) in 2013 of 11 murders stretching from Boston to Florida and Oklahoma. Bulger had spent 16 years as one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives before he was captured in Santa Monica, California, in 2011.

The could have found him sooner. If they tried harder.