Why I Love My Hobby – Stamp Collecting

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I love my hobby, stamp collecting, which also has become my profession since I started working five months ago as an editorial associate for the American Philatelic Society. The society, more than 30,000 strong, bills itself as America’s Stamp Club.

Like a stamp collection filled with old classic stamps, plate blocks, cachets, stampless covers and perfins (yup, you might have to look up a couple of those), we’re an eclectic bunch of collectors with many different interests. And, believe it or not, pleasant surprises always seem to be around most every corner.

One of my favorite parts of the hobby is that it provides a constant education. I’ll share just this snippet of what I learned today.

One of our respected writers, Charles M. Posner, a good-humored Brit with a fine reputation as a journalist, researcher and writer, is writing a series on U.S. stamps of the 1950s. I read and edit each one and have learned a lot about the likes of Betsy Ross, Cadillac (the man, not the car), and the beginnings of NATO. Each article is usually more than 3,000 words.

Today, I read Charles’ article on the 3-cent Centennial of Engineering stamp released in 1952. (Stop snoozing!!!) The stamp was released to honor the American Society of Civil Engineers. The only thing that pleased me when I opened this story up was the fact that the stamp is older than me.

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But even though Charles, whose writing can entertain, wrote it, all I could think of were two things.

First, Engineers are lousy tippers. And I hate to say that because I have friends and relatives who are engineers. But having driven a taxi cab for 13 months, ending that career just six months ago, many of them never offered a tip. I still don’t get it. These are smart – sometimes incredibly smart – individuals. Do they just exist in little drafting rooms and down in tunnels and pits and NEVER get out? Maybe social norms don’t penetrate hard hats

Second, the wonderful movie “Office Space” in which the character Tom seethes while explaining his duties at Initech to the job assessment right-sizers. “Engineers are not good at dealing with customers.”

Oh, boy, now I have to read 3,000 words explaining this 1952 stamp commemorating engineers … seemed like I was in for a long afternoon.

To my pleasant surprise, though, the story moved along quickly with plenty of interesting tidbits, from elements of rejected designs, including two showing bare-chested male engineers (apparently, engineers like to doff their shirts, which I did not know), to a near-unanimous decision to show an image of the George Washington bridge on the stamp.

The story went on to talk a little about Nora Stanton Blanch Barney (1883-1971). Nora_Stanton_Blatch_Barney_1921

What’s cool about Nora is that she was the first female to receive any kind of engineering degree from a U.S. university, Cornell Univeristy, Class of ’05. After graduation, she became the American Society of Civil Engineers’ first female member. She also was a suffragette, just like her grandmother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Tomorrow, I get to read about Mount Rushmore. I can’t wait.

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A Sponge Goes to College

(I wrote the following for the State University College at Oswego Alumni Magazine. I was, of course, an English major. Class of 1977)

My fourth-grade teacher had one major criticism during a parent-teacher conference with my parents so many years ago.

“He doesn’t participate enough,” she told Mom and Dad. “I know he understands the material, but he doesn’t raise his hand or participate much. He’s like a sponge.”

Oswegoicons.2014 012I guess I always felt it was more important to learn from the teacher, materials and classmates rather than demonstrate that I knew something. I was shy. I also feared the label “smarty pants.”

We all change somewhat, and today, some folks would say I babble too much. But I have always exhibited a spongelike ability – taking in what I can from my environment.

So I was pretty much in education heaven when I attended Oswego State in the 1970s.

The teachers and classes were outstanding and it seemed I was interested in everything, from the familiar to areas I knew little about: geography, statistics, history of the English language, accounting, computers, education, psychology … Was it any surprise that I changed majors six times, beginning and ending with a not-particularly-marketable, but very appreciated, English degree?

I’m not saying it was all pleasant. About three semesters and my fourth major into my collegiate career – I decided to major in computer science. I would sit at a keyboard on the first floor of Culkin Hall typing on data processors no one would recognize today. Programs were punched on hundreds of IBM cards that I carried around in a long cardboard box. It was a world of odd Star Trek-like languages, like FORTRAN and COBOL (do they still exist?).

What was I thinking?

In order to catch up (due to switching majors) I was soon taking nothing but computer and business-related courses. I am still traumatized to think about the computer-like (everything in Base 2) GPA that likely had a 1 (or was it a 0?) before the decimal point.

My graduation date would be pushed back 15 months, but I learned a LOT even in my semester of failure. Although I knew we were facing a world where we would have to be more and more connected to computers, I learned that I did not want to work with their innards. I survived despair and suicidal thoughts (I encourage everyone to seek help). And I learned that I wanted to work with people much more than machines.

So I returned to English and my interest in becoming a reporter, the perfect job for a sponge.

I was fortunate that the college had so many great teachers who allowed me to explore my far-ranging interests, which given my interest in becoming a reporter, was much more a plus than a minus.

To fulfill a science requirement I found my way to now-demolished Snygg Hall and physics professor Ronald Brown, who was mad for toys, which he used often to demonstrate principals of science. His introductory course was amazingly entertaining – I actually know the physics behind those silly toy drinking birds. His enthusiasm was so contagious that I took another course with him even though I didn’t need the science credits.

I attended other edifying classes in Mahar Hall, one of the hulky mid-1960s concrete-and-glass edifices that surround the permanently dry sunken pool on the old quad. There, Irwin Flack led me through two classes of the history of urban planning. I was thrilled that so much of what I learned came back to me a couple years ago when I was finally able to visit Savannah, Ga., whose history we spent many hours reviewing.

And as an English major, I spent plenty of time in Sheldon Hall, with its stately columns and clock tower standing firm behind a statue of its namesake, Edward Austin Sheldon. (Yes, he’s still holding that apple and lecturing that young boy.) There, I took every newspaper and journalism course – including two internships at the Oswego Palladium-Times – that I could take from James Brett. Brett, a somewhat slight man with a bit of a thin voice, always seemed a tad jittery (maybe exaggerated by many nerve-wracking years in the news business.)

Brett knew his stuff. It was his commonsense approach to the tradition of journalism – then still entrenched in the world of print – that led to my career of more than 36 years as a reporter and editor, mostly spent at the dailies in Syracuse. Whenever I had a reporting assignment that I hated, I inevitably remembered Brett’s professional warning: The night you decide to go to the bar across the street instead of attending the common council meeting at City Hall is the exact night that some whacko will walk in and shoot the mayor dead.

I thought of that for decades every time I had to cover routine stories, which I found, if I listened closely, offered me plenty of new information, lessons and insights.

Lessons learned by a sponge. Thanks, Oswego State.

Becoming Closer to Someone After They’re Gone

Sons Cliff (left) and Jeff greet their dad, Dave Stage (wearing his ESSO jacket), after a day at work.

You can become closer to a loved one long after they’re gone. For me, it’s my dad, Dave Stage, who died more than a dozen years ago. When he died, there was an unfortunate rift between us.

Other than having good sense of humor, we weren’t much alike.

He worked a blue-collar job, and was gregarious, a showman and great with his hands. He took up downhill skiing and leaned to tap dance in his 40s, when he also started riding a motorcycle.

Those who know me well know how inept I am. I fumble things, can’t draw a straight line, can’t carry two notes and have no rhythm. I would much rather tend to my stamp collection than fly down a hill at breakneck speeds. I am often introverted.

But I have felt closer to Dad’s life over the past year, ever since I started driving a taxi cab for a living.

No, I still can’t sing or dance. And I still can’t paint a still life or juggle. And I will likely never be able to replace a car starter or hammer a nail straight. Dad could do all of those and a lot more.

Dad didn’t drive a cab, but for 35 years he delivered gasoline and oil for ESSO, and later, Exxon. He left Oil City in Syracuse, N.Y, four days a week (10-hour standard work days) to out on the road in heat, driving rain, sleet and snow squalls dealing with unruly drivers, traffic congestion, potholes and narrow streets.

So, three decades after he retired as a truck driver, and more than a dozen years after he died, I began a mini second career out on the road, spending 40 to 50 hours a week delivering strangers to destinations all around Central New York in that same heat, driving rain, whiteouts, traffic snarls and wild animals, those scampering across the road and those infused by road rage behind the wheel.

And, for a portion of the 200-or-so miles-a-day I drive, I feel Dad there with me.

When my brother and I were kids, we would be caught somewhere between giggles and utter frustration whenever we got into the family car. Dad would take the wheel, but before we started rolling, he would fidget in the driver’s seat, offering a grunt here, a groan there as he squirmed, wiggled and fiddled.

“What’s wrong, Dad? Are you OK?” we would ask.

“Shush,” my mother implored.

“I just can’t get comfortable,” Dad would say at some point before finally setting the car in gear and driving out with a couple of final groans.

Most mornings now, I get into the company’s taxi cab and I squirm and wiggle as I move the seat forward and back or flip the lever to lean the car seat back a little before seconds later flipping the same lever so the seatback straightens. And again and again, finally driving off, maybe not quite comfortable.

When I was little, Dad would come home late almost every night, always held up by late deliveries, inclement weather or some glitch in paperwork he’d have to iron out before punching out. We never had a set dinnertime. Meanwhile, Mom would have to pull out every little trick to hold off two “starving” boys, somehow preserving the always-hot dinner for Dad.

Today, I never know when my day will end, that being determined only by the number of people who hop off flights in Syracuse looking for a ride. People waiting on me for dinner or to get to a concert or movie can be frustrated by inability to make it at a set time.

Every day, Dad had the distinctive aroma of gasoline waft about him as he came through the door slipping off his dirty, blue-striped coveralls in the entryway so smelly outerwear wouldn’t make its way into the main part of the house.

Luckily, I am not splashed with gasoline, but I, too, have a daily uniform I like to doff before I can settle in for the evening.

As kids at dinner, I would press Dad to hear of where he had traveled that day. It could have been Geneva or Watertown or Buffalo. He’d toy with pronouncing towns like Boonville and Lowville, overstressing the vowels for fun.

Today, I laugh at some of the vocalizations from my GPS as I take people to and from Geneva or Watertown or DeWitt (pronounced Do-it by Ms. GPS).

I had some expectations and surprises when I started driving cab, but this one of becoming closer to my dad was a total surprise.

Happily, it has not been the father I saw in the end, an enigmatic shadow that left me with a lot of unresolved anger. But I’ve become closer to the kinder, gentler (sometimes enigmatic) Dad I was privileged to know for more than 45 years.

(Note: For some reason the caption fell off. That’s my dad, Dave, with my brother, Cliff (left) and me.)

When You Come to a Fork in the Road

Decisions, decisions.

I remember my mom plying that well-worn phrase as she clucked her tongue and wrung her hands.

I remember the feelings surrounding those moments of uncertainty more than I remember the actual decisions.

And the funny thing is I never was really sure if she truly was suffering angst over the decision of the moment, or is she was mocking the concept that decisions were hard.

“This is what will happen.” Or, “this is what will be.” Or, “this is how it is.”

Those are the matter-of-fact statements I envisioned were going through my parents’ heads. I always felt decisions came easy, or at least logically, for mom and dad.

Unfortunately, for this son, decisions don’t come so easy. I fret. I dither. I worry. This, despite the fact I think I am armed with a good amount of logic and common sense, thanks in no small part to my upbringing.

Despite my tools, I find I certainly am not always right. Hardly. I am often off target, a shade to the right, a near miss, way off, not even in the ballpark.

And that’s only if I am able to arrive at a decision. Decisions are just danged hard for me, especially if other people are involved.

What restaurant do you want to eat at? Do you want to sit behind third base or first base, or even home plate? What movie do you want to see? Vanilla or chocolate?

Danged if I know!!! I hate to be wrong. All sound good to me.

But, of course, if we want to be our own captains we need to make decisions in life. We have to take charge. Years ago, my friend, Frank, often quoted me the military’s philosophy on decisions:

“The only bad decision is no decision,” he’d tell me.

Got it. (Though, I am not sure Frank, a true straight-shooting Midwesterner, felt I should be making decisions so many years ago when I dragged him and our wives to see “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I got it, they didn’t. I laughed, they cried.)

I wasn’t even sure I should write any of this because I knew how foolish I’d look. And, don’t get me wrong, I can indeed make decisions, and have certainly made many – big and small, from the mundane to the life-changing. But it ain’t easy, my friend.

So here is the latest BIG decision for me.

I had to decide whether to turn my back on the decades I have spent learning and honing the craft of a media professional, most of it spent in Syracuse, N.Y., at the daily newspapers, first the Herald-Journal and then The Post-Standard. I was a reporter and editor and a columnist over the years. Every day I helped report, write and edit big stories and small, from those stories with gigantic headlines on Page 1 to inside-buried-in-the-back briefs.

Times change, though, and the new company in town didn’t have a place for me in their “digital first” format. I moped a bit (OK, a lot), but was happy to try and venture out into new, though similar, areas.

I applied for communications and media jobs at many places throughout Central New York. Got close a couple of times, but no job. I knew I had the skills and knowhow to do many of these jobs, but it’s a very tight job market and I just didn’t land one.

A year after being laid off I finally had an opportunity that was likely a sure thing. A job was available at a small weekly newspaper. But it was out of state four hours away, which would have meant a major move. And the pay was nothing like what I had hoped for. Man, I wanted that job. It’s a very high quality publication. And I visited the town and liked it. I could have done the work in my sleep. And I felt certain the job was mine for the asking.

Decisions, decisions.

I hemmed and hawed, pondered, worried for several days before finally telling the editor that I just wasn’t ready for the move.

I was sad, down in the dumps. I somehow knew in my heart that it was likely the last good chance I would get for a career that, going back to high school, had lasted more than 40 years. I was heartbroken, not to mention starting to run low on cash.

What next?

I joked around, telling people I was searching for large cardboard boxes and stray shopping carts and scoping out spots beneath highway underpasses. Inside, though, I really did feel that way.

Then, life moved on.

It’s a trite cliché, but when one door closes, God opens another; if not a full-sized door, at least some kind of a little opening that even a chubby guy can wedge through, right?

That’s what happened with me. An advertisement arose in the Sunday Post-Standard, ironically the newspaper I had toiled at for so many years. The ad was for a job at a company that had impressed me the couple times I had brushes with them.

I am a pretty good judge of character and I had such a good vibe about this outfit. I held by breath and wrote a letter, applying for the job. As luck would have it, the supervisor contacted me, interviewed me and hired me. I’m excited to say I should start working for them within a week.

But, it’s strange and a bit unsettling because the new job is absolutely nothing like the type of work I have done for so long. Most of the skills and knowledge I acquired and nurtured over decades won’t be used in my new duties.

OK, on the side I will still be writing for myself and self-editing (the sequel to “Chasing Jenny” is under way and needs a lot of work!), so I will be using those old skills to some extent. But those skills and knowledge that grew and flourished over more than 40 years spent in the newspaper industry will no longer be a necessity or a part of my daily professional life.

So, am I happy I made this decision? You bet. Tough decision, but I think it’s a good one.

Oh, the job? As soon as the city OKs my license, I will start driving for the Syracuse Regional Taxi Co., whose primary business is to ferry people to and from Syracuse Hancock International Airport.

Where to, folks?

Greetings from the Snowiest City in the USA

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Living in Central New York state means snow. And snow elicits two reactions:

YAY! We can ski, skate, snowmobile, go ice fishing and build snowmen. We can strap on clunky snowshoes to make our way through quiet forests looking for the stupidest birds in the world that weren’t smart enough to fly south for the winter. So cool.

Or, holy crap. Ugh – I have to wear very heavy unfashionable clothing that barely prevents me from being frostbit and shovel this, scrape this, trudge through this, drive through this???!!!! Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

And now it’s official.

Syracuse, N.Y. is (again) the United States’ snowiest city, according to AccuWeather, which compiled a list of the world’s snowiest cities. Syracuse came in tied at fifth with Quebec City. Each has an annual snowfall of 124 inches, according to AccuWeather.

No. 1 was Aomori City in Japan, with a staggering 312 inches– 26 feet – of snow each year. There are no humans living in Aomori City. It is inhabited only by Japanese snow monkeys and abominable snowmen and snowwomen and snowchildren.

 In second place was Sapporo, Japan (191 inches), where the 1972 Winter Olympics were held. Belgium’ No. 2 bobsled team remains lost to this day after flying off the track. It was last seen barreling toward a monstrous snowdrift.

Following are Toyana, Japan (143 inches) and St. John’s, Newfoundland (131 inches).

Please note: Newfoundland – the world’s 16th-largest island – sticks off the far northeast coast of the Canadian mainland. It was not discovered until 1948 when an unusually warm spring (which means higher than -200 degrees) melted some snow, allowing the top of a 700-foot-tall pine tree to be spotted. The province of Labrador was discovered at the same time, but sadly a year later was buried by a blizzard and has not been seen since.

We are not sure what folks in Quebec City think about snow or being on the list. We do know that early French settlers, arriving in balmy 40-degree mid-July temperatures, became quite concerned about “snow,” which was mentioned by the native population who were wearing lots of animal skins and walking as quickly as possible southward. The new arrivals quickly came up with a plan to deal with this savage enemy called “snow.” They constructed a wall around their city to keep the “snow” out. Pretty smart, eh? (Hahahaha, joke’s on them, no?)

But Syracusans and Central New Yorkers, we know about our snow. Ask anyone living in the city or other nearby burgs like Oswego or Fulton or Redfield or Parish or Mexico or Watertown or the Tug Hill Plateau.

We live in what is known as the snowbelt. Cold Canadian winds blow furiously over the Great Lakes, pick up moisture, and then dump it as snow, often off the eastern and southeastern shores of Lake Ontario.

Snowplow drivers, mitten-makers and snow-shovel salesmen are the kings and queens here, living in luxurious golden palaces. Laplanders and the Inuit have adopted us as honorary citizens.

We’ve been known to shovel from October through April. We had a big snowstorm here on Mother’s Day a few years ago. A few years ago we had more than 90 days in a row of sub-freezing temperatures (Yes, folks in Minnesota and the upper Michigan peninsula are laughing because they never have fewer than 293 consecutive days of sub-freezing temps. Go write your own blog if you want to whine about it!)

This year’s been especially bad because something called an Arctic Vortex (known affectionately as Hell Freezer) has been haunting us for months.

Hahahahaha. You can make me spend hours digging the car out of a drift. I haven’t seen the cat for weeks, though I can see him out there tunneling as if he were a groundhog. And my house-bound neighbors are looking at me as if my name was Donner.

The frozen-fingered, icicle-nosed, aching-back drivers, shovelers and ice-scrapers among us have a special vocabulary for this weather, which is better left mumbled beneath frozen breath or shouted deafly into the Arctic winds.

But we are hardy folk here in Snow-a-cuse.

 Every newborn in Syracuse is given diapers, formula and an ice scraper when they leave the hospital. There’s a law that says every vehicle on the road must carry a 50-pound bag of ice melt and a 5-hp snow blower in the trunk or pickup bed.

Drifts taller than eight feet are protected from destruction as a type of protected natural habitat. We have dozens of words for snow, only half that I can say here. Those are the half from the skiing-snowmobiling-skating-sledding set.

All this makes me realize that my city needs a slogan more appropriate than Syracuse, N.Y. – Tied for World’s Fifth-Snowiest City. Here are some ideas:

No snow? This must be July 3rd through 17th!!!!!

In the spring, we make really huge SLUSHIES!

Welcome to Syracuse. You better have a snow shovel, chains on your tires, a plow, 100 pounds of ice melt and salt, and two weeks of provisions in your trunk.

God made every snowflake different. Then he saw Syracuse and realized he’d have to make thousands of copies of the billion gazillion designs available.

Syracuse: Hoping for a snowless 24-hour period. There’s always hope, right?

Send us more hot toddies, soon!

Another three feet in the driveway? Man, I just shoveled two hours ago.

Syracuse, see if you can find our grassy lawns.

Hate snow? Man, have you made a wrong turn.

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‘Harry Potter’ Actors Not the First Living Persons on U.S. Stamps …

(… but they are Brits, by George)Image

The U.S. Postal Service’s release in November of a set of 20 Harry Potter postage stamps has prompted a flood of controversy that continues to flow.

It’s all about money, of course. Postmaster General Patrick A. Donahoe hopes stamps like the Harry Potter set will prompt more people, especially young people, to buy stamps, and maybe even save some.

Hahahahaha. How many young people have you seen hanging around a post office just giddy in anticipation of when the next stamps will come out?

Sure, the Potter stamps might nudge a few kids to take interest, but the number will be tiny and hardly enough to start bailing the USPS out of a deep hole. (By the way, I truly love the U.S. Postal Service. Despite what some folks think, it’s the best in the world at its business and much of its deep financial hole is through no fault of its own.)

But back to the Harry Potter set.

Several points of contention have caused a flurry of emotions among consumers, newspaper editors, watchdogs and stamp collectors. Whether you love or hate the Potter stamps, there are many questions about the stamps, which come in a neat little booklet and feature direct screen shots of main characters from the hugely popular fantasy movie series that ran from to 2001 to 2011. The movies, of course, were based on author J.K. Rowling’s novels.

Why are living people being depicted on U.S. stamps? Hasn’t the U.S. had a strict (though occasionally overlooked) policy of not picturing living people on stamps since it first started issuing stamps in 1847?

If the USPS was going to break the rule, why do it with a series of films that were based on a British writer’s acclaimed works and starred actors exclusively from the British Isles? Aren’t there many classic American movies starring American actors that deserve the honor?

 Why was the entire membership of the esteemed Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee against the Potter stamps? The committee, which can have as many as 15 members but currently has 11, is an appointed group that helps shape our annual stamp program. It recommends stamp subjects and designs to the postmaster general, who has final say. The USPS receives about 40,000 requests for new stamps every year. Postmaster General Patrick A. Donahoe overruled the committee and blessed the stamps.

There is enough controversy on the topic that the USPS’s Office of Inspector General is seeking public comments on its blog (www.uspsoig.gov/blog/will-harry-cast-spell-young-stamp-collectors). There were more than 200 comments through mid-February. Please go there and have your say.

I could write on and on about whether living persons should appear on U.S. stamps. (For the record, I am against it. Not many years ago, most folks would have agreed that elderly coaching legend Joe Paterno was worthy of being on a postage stamp. Then look what happened.)

I will hold any more comments on the controversy. Instead, I want to note that during its coverage, one national news organization reported that the Harry Potter stamps were the first U.S. stamps to show fictional characters. That’s not right.

It is true that fictional movies and TV shows, including “Seinfeld,” “The Cosby Show,” “Titanic” and “Star Trek” have been honored on stamps and no human characters were depicted.

But fictional characters and actors from films and literature are indeed depicted.

The U.S. Postal Service released a sheet of 15 41-cent stamps in 2007 honoring the Star War series of movies (Scott catalog No. 4143). The stamps show several characters from the six films, including Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker. The USPS tried to soften the concept of living persons on stamps by artistically altering the images. They look more like drawings rather than direct screen stills, though one would be hard-pressed to not recognize Harrison Ford as Han Solo or the other actors in their roles.

Perhaps the news organization meant to say the actors were the first foreigners to show up on U.S. stamps. Sorry, that’s wrong. Several have appeared, though not many in recent years. Among the foreigners on U.S. stamps are William Shakespeare, the Marquis de Lafayette Alfred Nobel, Dante Alighieri and Winston Churchill.

Perhaps the news organization meant to say it was the first appearance of living people on stamps.

No, before the Potter stamps hit, there had already been more than 60, according to John Hotchner, a longtime stamp columnist and former member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee.

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In many cases, a designer, artist or photographer used a model or models, or maybe a photograph, to create a scene or mood for the stamp. The model was just that and was not depicted as his- or herself. Examples of stamps in which the model was living when the stamp was issued are the Arbor Day stamp of 1932 (two children on a stamp planting a tree); the 1961 Nursing stamp; and a West Virginia woman sat for a photo in the 1940s that Al Parker used as an illustration that was re-created on the 2001 American Illustrators pane of 20 stamps.

In other cases, the USPS chose or created artwork that included a living person. Again, it is often the event and not the individual begin honored and you can rarely see the person’s facial features. Modern examples include the First Man on the Moon stamps (1969, Scott No. C76; 1994, No. 2842) and the 911 Firefighters Flag stamp (2002, No. B2).  

Perhaps the news organization meant to state that the Potter stamps were the first to show actual screen shots from a movie. Nope, wrong again.

The Celebrate the Century series 1900s set of 10 stamps (No. 3182) issued in 1998 shows a cowboy-robber in the landmark 1903 silent movie, “The Great Train Robbery.”  (As an aside, the actor shown was known as Justus D. Barnes, or George Barnes, and lived for many years in Cayuga County, N.Y., where is buried.)

Perhaps the national report meant to say the Potter stamps were the first to show British actors? Nope, wrong.

The 1910 Celebrate the Century sheet (No. 3183) shows the Little Tramp, a fictional character portrayed by Charlie Chaplin.

Although the performing and literary arts, and those who create them, have been depicted on many stamps, only a relative handful show the characters in books, television shows and movies. And, most have only been depicted over the last 20 years or so.

The oldest fictional character depicted on a U.S. stamp that I can find – is the 8-cent Tom Sawyer stamp (No. 1470) of 1972.

ImageTom is shown inspecting as a neighborhood friend whitewashes Aunt Polly’s fence from Mark Twain’s novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Four classic movies – “Gone with the Wind,” “Beau Geste,” “Stagecoach” and “The Wizard of Oz” – were honored on their 50th anniversaries with a block of four stamps in 1989 (Scott Catalog Nos. 2445-2448). Each stamp looked like a movie poster and showed the stars (then deceased) of the films appearing as they appeared portraying fictional characters.

In 1993, four stamps (Nos. 2767-2770) show characters from four classic Broadway plays: “Show Boat,” “Porgy & Bess,” “Oklahoma!” and “My Fair Lady.” None of the actors shown are identifiable in any way.

Also in 1993, a block of four stamps depicted popular young persons’ literature, including Huckleberry Finn and Little Women. (Nos. 2785-88). And four 1996 stamps showed folklore legends like Mighty Casey (at the Bat) and Paul Bunyan (Nos. 3083-3086).

In 1997, the USPS gave us five Classic Movie Monsters (Nos. 3168-72), including Dracula and the Mummy.

I am sure I missed more than a few, but you get the idea. Feel free to do your own hunting. You may be surprised what philatelic treasures you will find.

And, for those who don’t like the idea of living persons should buckle up. It will take a lot more than wizardry to fix the USPS’s financial woes and Donahoe has stated that the Postal Service “needs to change its focus toward stamps that are more commercial.”

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Why I Still Send Christmas Cards

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Why do I send Christmas cards?

 It’s time spent, money spent, effort spent and can be filled with spent emotions (what was the name of the Smiths’ dog again? Hate to leave him out of the salutation!!!)

 Like so many other good habits and traditions, many people are sadly giving up the card-sending tradition.

 Having a true fondness for novelty songs, one of the best for the season is “The 12 Pains of Christmas,” which was featured on the 1987 album, “Twisted Christmas” by the Bob Rivers Comedy Group. The song highlights all of those special annoying moments we know so well, like “no parking spaces” and “stringing up the lights.” And, of course, there’s the fella who wails “I don’t even know half these people” as he’s sending out Christmas cards.

 As much as I love that song – it’s just a parody, folks – true cranky and lame excuses fill the web.

 “None,” writes one Web Scrooge responding about how many cards he (or she) sends out. “None at all. I have wasted many a winter’s evening writing the stupid, pointless things out and addressing all the envelopes. Then one year I just decided not to. It’s great. I get fewer and fewer every year as a result, but that’s fine by me.” (Hope you get an undigested bit of beef and a nasty blot of mustard for Christmas).

 Others whine, and I’ll paraphrase here (who knew this was such a hot-button topic that could elicit such rough language).

 They don’t send to me, so I’ll be danged if I send them a holiday cheerio. (Humbug!)

  It costs too much money. I’d have to go the post office to buy stamps.

  Nothing’s interrupting my football season, other than – what’s it called? Oh, right, Christmas day – from the time the Hawaii bowl ends (about midnight Christmas Eve Eastern time) until Dec. 26 (when the Little Caesars Bowl kicks off).

 “None,” pens another blogger. “I make a donation to charity and email all the people I would have sent a card to to tell them which charity I have chosen this year. Then I do something I enjoy with the hours I have saved.”

  Uh-huh. And what charity would that be? “The Human Fund, of course,” say the George Costanzas of the world. (If you don’t know, see “Seinfeld.”)

 There’s an easier solution than sending cards, some say.

 “With Facebook not costing any more than your Internet connection, and the cost of postage stamps on the rise, it just makes sense to use Facebook. With time such a precious commodity, it’s just easier to wake up Christmas morning and wish all your friends a Merry Christmas.”

 Uh, excuse me but I will NOT be checking the Internet Christmas morning for YOUR oh-not-so-special greeting. I’d much rather have a hot toddy, sit in front my Christmas tree and look at all the nice cards that well-wishers sent.

 This person just does NOT get it. He/she continues: “Hey, you can make it personal and LIKE all the Merry Christmas wishes you get in return. And there’s always Twitter as back up if you want to make sure you get the message out.”

 Or, I can just defriend you now from all my devices so I won’t have to be annoyed by your not-so-heartfelt mass-market Tweet.

 This is from another techno-Grinch working hard on his ageism:  “I send about five to a handful of elderly relatives who take great offense if I don’t. They either don’t or won’t use the Internet.”  All this bother with cards, why don’t they just die already???? (Come on. You KNOW that’s what this guy is thinking.)

 These are easy excuses to escape the joy of sitting down in a comfy chair with pine-scented candles or the fireplace lit, holiday music emanating from the TV or laptop, children busy crafting special gifts for Aunt Tilda or Grandpa, and tediously penning out a few hundred cards to close and distant friends, relatives, work colleagues, church members, the landlord, the trash collectors, the cashiers at the market, the early-morning crew at the doughnut shop and such. (Hey, and no excuse for the Jewish side. Hanukkah may have come early this year, but ol’ secular new year is a perfect time to pass along a mazel tov.)

 OK, no, of course, I’m being unrealistic. No one expects both the fireplace AND the pine-scented candles at the same time. But you get my meaning.

 Funny, I said this all 25 years ago when I wrote a column for the Herald-Journal. Today, I still feel the same way.

  I’d like to think I changed, maybe even for the better, over all those years, but let’s face it; some things are just so deep, so innate within us that they are as much part of us as our hair color.

  I have been re-examining life since I was forced out of my life-long profession earlier this year when the newspaper laid off more than 100 veteran workers. One thing that has become obvious is that the things I was good at 5 years old, I still enjoy. And, likewise, the things I was horrible at, I am still bad at. (I will leave that list for some other day.) And things I enjoyed as a kid I still enjoy.

 Which brings me back to those Christmas cards. (And this is the part where I really date myself.)

 One of the most magical aspects of Christmas is anticipation. What kid ever went to sleep easily on Christmas Eve? And all of the lead-up to the big day when I was a kid (come on, you were waiting for that phrase, right?) was in itself magical.

 Getting the gigantic Sears & Roebuck toy catalog and going through EVERY page, maybe even circling more things than Santa Claus could ever fit into the back of his sleigh. The occasional TV special – Andy Williams wearing his signature holiday sweater. Mom and Dad rustling through the door with overstuffed shopping bags scurrying into their bedroom and shutting the door. Driving around area neighborhoods at night to look at the lights and decorated houses. Advent church services with all of its special stories and music.

 And, one of the best activities of all was the daily delivery of Christmas cards in the mail. Sometimes just one, maybe a couple, or, on a big day, a nice handful. I loved helping Mom and Day open them and looking at all of the designs – some secular, some religious, some humorous, some artsy.

  And, often, even when I was old enough to read, my folks, usually Mom, would read them aloud. It might just be the inside pre-printed greeting and signed by someone I didn’t know. Or, maybe it was a relative and it would be accompanied by a note offering news of the last year, or last few months.

 And then there was finding a place to put them. For years, we taped them to the arched entryway from our main hallway into our living room. Other times, they started on the piano and proceeded onto nearby bookshelves. But wherever they landed, though, they were looked at throughout the holiday season with the knowledge that someone took the time to reach out and say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays – welcoming messages of cheer and hope.

 So, why still send cards in this age of shrinking budgets, a seemingly endless number of more “important” things to do, technology’s ease of alleviating some of the work, a lack of instant gratification and  the ever-changing (i.e. maddening) world?

 Is “ ’tis the season” a good enough answer?

 I was bolstered by the recent story on Philly.com that tells of children ages 8 to 13 at four Catholic schools in southeastern Pennsylvania who send Christmas cards to about 1,000 residents of senior homes in the Bucks County and the city of Philadelphia.

 Elizabeth Ross, a former schoolteacher from Bensalem, started the project while she was volunteering at St. John Neumann Home in Philadelphia.

 “The sense of loneliness and hopelessness just bothered me,” said Ross, who gives talks and hosts book clubs at senior residences throughout the region.

 Thank you, Elizabeth, and thanks to those schools and children.

 Today, plenty of things are different. And I don’t hold it against anyone who doesn’t send me or anyone else a card. Maybe you truly are too busy. Or really can’t afford it. My list shrinks, and grows. I have sent cards to a few folks over the years who have never sent me one. That’s perfectly OK. My cards are unconditional.

 But I want to send a thank-you to all who have sent and are still sending. For some of us, it’s an old-fashioned tradition that makes this special holiday a bit more special.

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Food and special moments often melt together

Hot fudge.

Not exactly the food you might think about when it comes to America’s premier food week – that being Thanksgiving with all its trimmings – but it dribbled into my mind as I thought about the upcoming holiday feast.

My brain, like so many of ours, does that thing where you start thinking about one thing and that leads to another thread and another and multiple threads and so on. It’s just like those cartoons when Bugs Bunny pulls the loose thread on Elmer Fudd’s sweater and poor Elmer’s entire sweater unravels into a big heap on the floor.

My brain is often that sweater (oh, that explains a LOT, is what a lot of people who know me are now saying.)

So when I started thinking about the special Thanksgiving meals of my past I thought about several other special food moments in my life.

I am pretty far removed from anything one could call a “foodie.” I don’t know a spice from an herb, I have no clue what a reduction is, and I totally relate to the befuddled guy in the commercial whose wife packed him quinoa burgers for his tailgate party.

Thank God my girlfriend, Tori, cooks incredibly well. She uses a recipe on occasion, but mostly just creates great meals out of thin air. It’s all magic to me.

It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation of good food. I do. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to eat – just about anything (please NO meatloaf, lentils, Brussels sprouts, or sprouts of any kind).

But we also link food memories to places, people and events.

So when I think of the elementary school cafeteria, what comes to mind are fresh pears, always a treat in bagged lunches at the start of the school year, and those little vanilla ice cream cups you’d eat with the wooden spoon.

A staple at college (Oswego State) were subs – either from Oswego sub shop (meatball with mozzarella) or the oil-smothered subs from Jreck.

I couldn’t really stand onions when I was a kid. But when I smelled them frying with peppers, I knew Mom was making spaghetti sauce and we’d soon be gorging on a meal I would have gladly eaten five days a week.

The most interesting pizza I ever had was a very non-American-type pizza at a little restaurant in Marseille, which I was visiting with other teenagers during a spring trip. Whole tomatoes and other vegetables plopped right on the dough without the smooth red sauce we were all used to.

No, I don’t just eat burgers and pizza.

Some of the best meals I ever ate clearly had to do with great food combined with perfect ambience. A few worth remembering are Rezaz (Mediterranean cuisine) and Tupelo Honey Café (modern Southern fare) in Asheville, N.C.; the Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery (local fish done in tantalizing delicious sauce) in Hawi, the Big Island of Hawaii; and I swear that the best steak I ever had was not at a steakhouse, but at the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

And there are memorable food disasters as well.

We grew up of modest means and I can remember boiled potatoes were a staple. Yuck, even with gobs of melting butter on top. My parents and I battled over them. I finally agreed to eat them, but my deal was I would eat the serving of potatoes first before I touched anything else. That way I gave myself a reward of the main meal.

There was the great lobster shortage of a few summers ago. Tori and I were in Rockport on Cape Ann, Mass. I could see the lobster boats pull up the traps from our hotel. I held off my annual lust for lobster until our last night there, my birthday. Perfect.

At 3 p.m. we drove past a great lobster place that had been recommended. We passed on it. Too early, I said. So dinner came and, armed with the names of a couple good lobster places we headed out. It was about 7:45 p.m.

First place we went – “best place in town for seafood,”  a local said – looked great. Very New Englandish. It was about 7:30 p.m. The place looked full, but not overflowing. We were met near the door by a young, harried looking waiter.

“I’m sorry, but we’re just closing,” he said.

Huh? What? Excuse me? This is the height of the summer tourist season and you’re closing before 8 p.m.?

“Sorry.”

OK, no problem. Plan B. Get to the second place down the street. They’re open. AND they have a nice lobster dinner on the menu. Great. We’re seated. It’s about 8. Place our orders. A few minutes later, server returns to the table.

“I’m really sorry, but we’re all out of lobster.”

WHAT??? You’re joking!! Nope, no joke.

Now it was too late to try another place, so we ordered alternative dishes (my clams were awful) and I left the heart of Massachusetts lobstering territory without having the specialty. (I’ve suffered the same fate in other areas: TWO decent visits to NYC without a bagel, slice of pizza or street dog; trip to Hawaii without fresh pineapple, though, the papaya was to die for.)

As a p.s. to the lobster tale, Tori made it up to me big time when two nights after our return home, she surprised me with a big lobster dinner in our dining room, thanks to Wegmans.

As I parent, I somehow decided it was my duty to pass along food disasters to my son.

So one dark, 40-degree rainy Halloween night when he was about 8, his mother and I thought it was best for him to have something hot before he went out trick-or-treating. The choice: broccoli-cheese soup.

Poor kid was tricked big time. Though, in the parents’ defense, we didn’t know at the time that he was lactose intolerant. Trick-or-treating lasted about four houses. He didn’t get much candy, but on the bright side he also didn’t get chilled to the bone or eat the candy that may have caused cavities. I think he still hasn’t forgiven us. He does, however, remember broccoli-cheese soup, which he has never eaten again.

 I like to be positive, though, so I prefer to remember meals like some of the Thanksgiving feasts I had as a kid. It was often my parents, older brother and my mother’s parents, who would come visit us from Delmar, N.Y., a suburb of Albany.

My grandparents were kosher and we were being raised Methodist, so that set up a bit of a conundrum for meals. But my Mom’s solution was we became kosher for the holiday. That drew a big hurrah from me because I got to drink ginger ale and 7Up with meals instead of milk.

We had no formal dining room and our kitchen barely fit four people (two of them being relatively small children) around a small kitchen table. Formal meals with guests wound up in the rectangular family room that my Dad had pretty much built by himself. There was a lot of decorative wood in there. The walls were knotty pine and a straight bay window overlooking the back yard took up the back window. The centerpiece was a fireplace Dad hand-built. It featured a lot of pink, gray, red and orange rough-cut marble.

My Mom and Grandma set a beautiful table, complete with linen tablecloth and napkins and candles. The silver was polished. The good china was used. We had fruit cups in little glass bowls to start. There was a relish plate. All the appropriate side dishes were there.

 And the golden-brown four-legged turkey that Mom popped into the oven at 5 a.m. was roasted to perfection. My grandfather teased me terribly trying to get me figure where I turkey with four drumsticks could have come from. It was a memorable feast, indeed.

But I started this food essay by promising hot fudge.

I was about 7 and I had to be pulled out of school for an appointment of some sort. A doctor, no doubt, because I was sick a lot as a kid.

After the appointment, my mom realized there was only about an hour left in the school day, so on her own (I did NOT beg), she decided I didn’t have to go back to school. Instead, she took the opportunity to go to the old Northern Lights Mall in Mattydale, which in the mid-1960s (long before mega malls) was a major shopping center in this town. It was a long strip mall that kind of curved in the middle where a little train would give kids rides along the storefronts.

The main anchor was Chappell’s department store. Unlike all the other stores in the strip, Chappell’s was two stories, which made it Northern Lights’ grande dame. On the second floor was a restaurant.

Mom asked me if I’d like to go up there and have an afternoon snack. It was so unlike her to do this. We were from modest means and such a spur-of-the-moment splurge was very out of character. And I had never even seen the store’s restaurant before. It seemed very grownup to me.

We sat down at a little table for two (it may have been by a window) and looked at the menus. It was just the two of us, Dad was working, my brother was in school. I had no idea what to order. Mom asked if I’d like to get a hot fudge sundae. I had never had one before. I knew what it was, but was nervous about the concept of “hot” fudge in this decadent dessert.

I expressed my concern about how hot it may be, but mom assured me I would like it. OK, I was sold.

I can only imagine the looks on my face when this beautiful tower of decadence arrived in the clear glass sundae dish accompanied by an extra long spoon. A couple scoops of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with deep dark chocolate fudge, fluffy whipped cream on top, a sprinkling of nuts and, of course, a bright unnaturally red maraschino cherry. And the best part, of course, was I could see a whole bunch of that delicious dark fudge pooled at the bottom.

Go ahead, Mom urged.

Still with some trepidation (is this fudge going to burn me?) I did what I was told. One safe spoonful of ice cream to start (just to cool my mouth down) before going to the bottom for the good stuff. It really was pretty warm (no microwaves back then … I guess they heated it in a little pot on a stove), but it was, needless to say, heavenly.

After that first bite, I needed no more encouragement. It was (shockingly) more than 50 years ago and I’ll always remember it as the best sundae I’ll ever have.

With Thanksgiving here, it’s a time to say thanks and to enjoy special food.

I’ll never know why my mom took me for that sundae. There was no holiday, no special event. Maybe she just wanted to spoil me a little. Thanks, Mom.

Welcome

My name’s Jeff and welcome to my blog. Hope we can have some fun.

OK, yes, that was very lame .. but gimme a break … it’s just to check this out and see how it works. Will check in soon with something to say … I am rarely without a rambling or two.