Friday, March 14, 2014

Writing Contest! Wish me Luck

Middle Grade Writers! Check out the Dear Lucky Agent Contest: @ChuckSambuchino

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Tribute to One of My Most Faithful Readers

If The Times Herald doesn’t deliver to heaven,it might have to start. One of the newspaper’s most loyal readers, my grandmother Catherine Bambi, hopped on the direct flight to the Pearly Gates after 95 years on this earth.

Her day was not complete without reading this newspaper. Last Saturday, one of her children visited her at Parkhouse in Royersford like they did every weekend since she moved there six months ago. They had lunch and my grandmother mentioned that my column would be in the paper tomorrow and she was looking forward to reading it. That she was so proud of me.

When she was brought to the nursing home for extra care the first thing she requested was that The Times Herald be delivered to her room. She read it every day starting with the obituaries. When she couldn’t, her family or doting nurses read it to her.

It was her window to the outside world and a connection to Norristown, where she was born and raised. It was a part of her life. And like anything or anyone that was a part of Kay Bambi’s life, she had a deep love for it.

When family and friends would visit her, she took their face in her hands and gave them a gentle kiss. She held your hand until you let go. She didn’t crave material things, just the company of her family. On holidays when we were all together, she would break down halfway though the pre-dinner prayer and say between sobs that she was so happy we could all be together.

“She was the quintessential Italian- American grandmother. The bridge connecting our ancestry in Sicily to our modern life. The pure embodiment of our family’s traditions and values. I’ll never forget the feeling of warmth and love when I entered her home, it was like visiting another world,” said my younger brother, Harry William, who is clearly gunning for my column and can’t let me have this one thing.

Like most Italian grandmothers, my memories of her are in the kitchen. Whenever I visited her and my grandfather’s home she was in an apron whipping up something delicious. There was always either a pot of chicken soup or sauce on the back burner.

I can smell the sweet basil in her sauce, the fennel in her chicken cutlet breading, and the fresh picked tomatoes from the garden.

What’s better is I can still see her. Her delicate hands holding the block of Locatelli over the mound of pasta. In one of her many dresses that she always wore. The halo of curly hair that she seemingly always had in perfect order.

I would visit her regularly after my grandfather passed away and she would be sitting at the kitchen table resting her face in her hand and holding the rosaries in the other. The Times Herald was spread out in front of her with a cup of tea.

“Grandmom, how are you?”

“You’ll never believe who died ...” she would say, and she would mention an old friend.

She genuinely cared about the people in her life whether she saw them yesterday or 40 years ago. She would continue the conversation by asking about my mother, father, brother, and husband. She didn’t care if I told her two days ago, she wanted to know how they were doing today. Her family was her life. Her love. Her world.

If I mentioned my husband, Tom, had a cold, she would toss her hand over her mouth in pure horror. “Is he going to be okay?” she would say, on the verge of tears.

“Grandmom, it’s a cold. Unless he got bit by an avian bird he’s gonna be okay,” I said.

“God forbid,” she said making a quick sign of the cross. And probably rattling off a decade of the rosary. “Make him a meatball sandwich.”

To my grandmother, and most Italians, any ailment or problem can be fixed by simply eating something. But not her death. Sorry, Grandmom, that is not the case. My stomach is in knots and it feels like something has been ripped out of me. I don’t think there are enough layers in this lasagna to make me feel better.

There is so much more I could say about my beloved grandmother. So many more stories. So many lessons. But even the pages of her favorite newspaper could not contain them.

She died last Sunday surrounded by her children and family. I imagine it is the way she would have wanted to leave this earth. I feel a sense of peace that she is with all those who have preceded her in death and is no longer suffering.

And that somehow. Someway. She is reading this.

Back to Pre-School

My Facebook news feed is filled with pictures of kids standing on the sidewalk holding backpacks. Unless the Parents Union decided to charge rent and these children were kicked out, it must be back to school time.

Sure, they are being prompted to “smile” for the iPhone, but these kids look so gosh darned happy. Facebook is your own personal public relations tool and lets you show the good parts of your life. People are eager to display their perfect pets, children, meals and craft projects. To me, it not only rings hollow, it seems fake. No one is perfect, yet that image of perfection is shoved in our face every day, from our peers to the mother of perfection, Martha Stewart. I’ve made an effort to share my “embarrassing” stories and not-so-great moments because you shouldn’t have to pick up the local paper and have a columnist prattling on about her idyllic life. Right now I am writing this column in between sneezing fits since I got a flu shot two days ago and they said it might give me a cold. I’m wearing a hoodie that smells like sour cream and onion chips and am trying to psych myself up to go to Starbucks to get a shot of caffeine.

I am far from the vision of classic beauty, domestic goddess or Miss Manners. My first day of school — the real first time ever in a school setting — that picture was far from perfect.

My parent’s enrolled me at Miss Joan’s Little School in Blue Bell during the fall of 1984, just a few months before my fourth birthday. It was my first time in any type of school environment, and my parents had the reasonable expectation it would go well. I was a pleasant baby who only cried when they tried to put me to bed. A happy, playful toddler. When my mother pulled the family Monte Carlo into the preschool parking lot during the first day of school, I showed her another side. I screamed. I wouldn’t take my seat belt off. I wriggled in her grip and refused to get out of the car. During the walk in if she let go of me, I would throw a quick juke and make a run for it. Once I was inside the teachers — Miss Laura and Miss Grace — would do their best to subdue me, but I would keep screaming for my mother. For the next few weeks she left me there even though it broke her heart to leave her crying daughter.

It took such an emotional toll on my mother that she asked my dad to take over the duties for a few weeks. My dad didn’t have the soothing voice of my mother, who tried to calm me down. He used brute force. He would put me in a headlock with my legs kicking wildly behind us and bring me in like he was hauling a small piece of lumber. He wasn’t taking any chances. He didn’t want me running up the middle of DeKalb Pike like a crazed 4-year-old in her Oshkosh.

My behavior didn’t have anything to do with the school or its teachers. I was a child who didn’t want to leave her mother. If you ever met her you would know why. She is the most kind-hearted and loving person.

There were probably other reasons — separation anxiety, fear they wouldn’t come back. I wondered if any children today felt the same way I did. So I went straight to the source.

I rang the buzzer and noticed a familiar face on the other side of the door. She tilted her head to mirror the familiarity. We introduced ourselves, and Miss Laura Laskin studied my face for less than a minute before she was able to pinpoint who I was. Not bad for not seeing me for 28 years.

I showed her a picture of me as a child to confirm.

“That’s the Katie I remember. The Katie I know. And I remember your mother clearly, too,” she said.

I smiled at her a bit sheepishly but felt the warm welcome she always gave me even though I wasn’t thrilled to be there.

“It was your first time in school so that’s why it was hard. Depending on the kids personality it determines how difficult the transition will be,” said Laskin, who has been the director since ’83. “The children all have different experiences.”

I asked her about her current crop of 4-year-olds. That morning only one out the 18 cried. Sitting in the tiny chairs, I saw the school much differently.

What was I crying about? Kids were in the well-appointed playground, laughing. Some were holding hands with the teacher. Others were skipping! I consider myself a happy person. Why don’t I skip more?

When they are not in the playground some of their schedule consists of two snack times, a lunch, table activities such as Play-Doh, tracing and cutting, story and nap.

Laskin did remember me being very emotional at drop-off but passed it off as a natural thing.

“All kids adjust. They are kids and need some time to be comfortable,” she said.

Laskin wanted to be a teacher since she was 9 years old. She is kind yet firm. Her dedication to the children is obvious. She makes the difficult decision of leaving your child (the school takes 18-month-olds to 5-year-olds) a lot less stressful. You know you are leaving them in more than capable hands.

“I always wanted to be a teacher and I never changed my mind. I love working with the kids, their families and my staff,” Laskin said.

When our brief reunion/interview was finished, in the familiar parking lot that housed my exploits, I wanted to go back and have one day of pre-school where I didn’t cry and was able to have the perfect experience. Then I realized, that for me, I already had.

Things Norristown Can Be Proud Of

have written two columns about Norristown: “Hope for my Hometown,” a personal look the town and ideas for its future, and “Something for Our Anything,” about the old Montgomery County Prison. As promised, I will occasionally write about the town I was born in and lived in for 22 years. Below is a list of some things that I believe are assets to the town and will grow with community involvement.

Who: The Norristown Project

The Norristown Project is a grassroots organization backed by residents of the community who share a vision for a better community. Volunteers focus on community cleanups and getting residents involved. When an area is selected, they pick up trash, clear weeds, remove graffiti and raise awareness of “community involvement.” The core value of the organization practices is that they refuse to sit back, refuse to complain, and refuse to wait for leaders and government to make a change.

Why they love Norristown: “I see the town for its beauty rather than the problems. There are so many great things that happen daily in Norristown but get overshadowed more than the average Montco town. There are residents who love to highlight everything that is wrong with the town that hurts our image. Things will change for the better in our town when we stop living in fear and get out and become an agent for change. My goal is to show others that it is okay to take pride in their town; the sooner they do, the sooner things will change.” — Shae Ashe, Founder.

A quick thought: One of the biggest eyesores in any town is litter and graffiti. Love the less-talk, more-work attitude. That’s how things get done. All ages are welcomed. There is no RSVP needed to attend, volunteers can just show up.

Who: Norristown Diary.

A blog written by lifelong Norristown resident Elena Santangelo, who has published numerous novels, short stories and nonfiction books. The main goal is to inform and to show fellow Norristonians that this can be a pretty decent place if they ban together and demand solutions. Some topics covered are people, neighborhoods and zoning.

Why they love Norristown:

“I love the history and absolutely love the architectural, immigrant, and ethnic and cultural diversity. Lets give people a reason to visit the town and spend their money here,” said Santangelo.

A quick thought: Most blogs are just online rants. The Norristown Diary is the opposite of that. It is well thought out and Santangelo’s writing chops shine through in her regular posts.

Who: Norristown Men of Excellence

Norristown Men of Excellence strive to promote and support a healthy, vibrant, and thriving community. They accomplish this by supporting and promoting community-based programs that encourage community engagement, economic development, youth opportunities, cultural awareness, and community health and welfare.

Why they love Norristown: “I (personally) love the pride of the people. There is nothing like that small town, close-nit unity and pride of the people of Norristown.” — Tre Hadrick, President of NMOE

A quick thought: The key to success of these organizations is engaging the community. The members of NMOE are huge advocates for the town and Hadrick is an active, involved president.

Who: Norristown Nudge

A forum for Norristonians to identify problems and find solutions. They meet every Saturday at 11 a.m. at Coffee Talk Artists Co-op - 507 W. Marshall St. in Norristown.

Why they love Norristown: “Location, diversity, history, architecture, friends, neighbors, community, great place to live.” — Aleksandra Eigen

A quick thought: An open discussion about Norristown with like-minded individuals who want to discuss the issues facing the town.

Who: Open Words at Jus’ Java, hosted by Mydera SpeakMeFree Robinson.

An open-mike event held on the first and third Wednesday of every month at Jus’ Java (1601 DeKalb St.). All artists welcome. Along with the open mic portion, they also feature local and national talent.

Why they love Norristown: “We are community, like so many others, that has seen better days. I personally believe that right now we lack guidance and direction. We have tons of very passionate people, who want to make a difference; they’re just not sure how to do it. I believe people are frustrated with the systems in place and feel hindered by them. All the time you will hear people say, “Norristown has changed,” and that’s hardly ever said in a positive light.

“One undeniable truth remains, though, we may be down, but we are definitely not out. We still have plenty of fight let in us. I believe there is great hope for a Norristown Renaissance, and I intend to be a part of it.

“We embody such vast potential with our diverse talents, engrained and emerging cultures, and our resilience. We are a global community in small town skin. I love Norristown for its diversity. I love Norristown for its possibilities.”

A quick thought: From the perspective of a former stand-up comic who spent a few days a week traveling to open mikes in Philadelphia and locations that tested my GPS, I can tell you a local venue is overdue. If Norristown plans to build on Arts Hill and embrace the arts it needs to embrace Open Words, since it is meant to bring in different artists at different levels of talent into the town.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

This Cloud Strictly for Napping

“I said, hey! You! Get off of my cloud Hey! You! Get off of my cloud.”

The defiant Rolling Stones lyrics were written as a reaction to their sudden popularity after the success of “Satisfaction.” The song deals with their aversion to people’s expectations of them.

I totally get what you are putting out, Mick Jagger. That’s exactly how I feel about my naps.

The Stones’ vices were much more rock and roll. Sex, booze and drugs. But I’m pretty sure they did a lot of napping, which is why they are still rocking while others their age are … well, dead.

I don’t live a rock star life. I don’t spend my weekends on sexcapades with Channing Tatum. I don’t have groupies who look like Patrick Demspey with the wit of Seth McFarlane. I don’t wreck hotel rooms and leave a layer of cocaine on the bathroom counter.

So get off of my cloud. Except you, Channing Tatum. You can stay.

Still, in our type-A, got-to-be-constantly-on-the-go society, naps are considered either a luxury or a sign of laziness.

I could say I need to take a nap due to medical issues that zap my energy, but I enjoy the act of napping too much.

Unlike grandparents and antisocial uncles, I can’t fall asleep in sitting in front of the television or during the middle of family gatherings.

I need my mattress with its memory foam topper. I need my Temperpedic pillow and my body pillow. I need the temperature to not exceed 74 degrees. A good blanket is imperative. And in the winter I need a dehumidifier.

See. I’m much more AARP than AC/DC.

As a baby, I was nearly impossible to put to sleep at night and forced my parents to wear out the carpet walking me around the bedroom. I never napped as a child because, my mother claimed, I was afraid I would miss something. In high school, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. and due to extracurricular activities and sports I would not go to bed until 11:30 p.m. Sure, I slept in on weekends, but during the week I was never so tired that I needed a late afternoon siesta.

First I experimented with napping junior year in college. I commuted to La Salle, so when I returned home from classes, I would take a nap before heading to my part-time job. I was ready for round two of my day, which also consisted of going out at night with my newly 21-year-old friends.

“Why have I been fighting this?” I thought when I woke up rejuvenated.

Sure, I get teased for my napping habit.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “There are so many things you could be doing” — the nap-naysayers comment.

The most successful and brilliant minds have taken a mid-day snooze.

Some famous nappers include Leonardo da Vinci and Napoleon.

“Hey, da Vinci, don’t you think you could accomplish more if you didn’t nap?” friends would ask. (Not historically proven. However, if The Times Herald wants to fund a trip for Italy for me to research it I would be happy to oblige.)

I hope he would have responded, “How many Mona Lisas have you painted?”

John Rockefeller napped every afternoon in his office.

Thomas Edison was embarrassed about his napping habit. I guess he felt he didn’t contribute enough to society.

President John F. Kennedy ate his lunch in bed and then settled in for a nap. Among the many other things he did in bed.

Some consider a nap no more than 20 minutes to a half hour. That’s where the so-called “napping experts” lose me. Napping for that amount of time is like ordering a bottle of water at the Capital Grille and nothing else. It’s like going to the Rolling Stones concert and leaving after the opening act. You don’t get the full effect of its glory.

“Do you do it every day?” I’m asked about my naps like they just found a hidden stash of illegal sustenance.

“No,” I answer honestly. I just don’t have the time to do it every day.

I don’t understand the outrage. I’m not leaving work early to slip in a late afternoon siesta. I’m not peacefully snoozing while babies scream in their cribs or children beg me to help them with their homework.

What’s the problem? Get off of my cloud.

These Boys of Summer are a Real Dream Team

“The U.S. began using professional athletes at the Games -—Dream Teams. I always found that term ironic because now that we have Dream Teams, we seldom ever get a chance to dream.” — Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks from the movie “Miracle”

The term “Dream Team” came into popularity in 1992 when the NBA sent a group of players headed by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to the Olympics. They have continued to follow this practice every four years. Teams filled with a collection of All-Stars don’t dream about winning — it’s all but a lock.

Now Dreams Teams exist in every level of sports. The Little League World Series, which comes to a close today, features a collection of the top players from different parts of the United States and other countries. Over the course of the last 10 days the games have been televised, and each error and tear has been on display for the world to see.

It seems adults are conflicted with youth sports. Some believe the “everybody gets a trophy, lets not keep score yet” mentality kills a competitive spirit and doesn’t prepare kids for a world where not everybody wins. Others think childhood is lost spending summers at sports camps and on traveling teams.

From having played sports and being a fan, I believe youth sports should be a learning experience, a lesson in teamwork and an opportunity to compete.

I can think of no better example of that than the Skippack Stars, a group of 13 12-year-old boys who traveled to Cooperstown, New York to take part in a tournament at Dreams Field from July 27 to Aug. 2. The local “Boys of Summer” advanced to the Sweet 16 in field of 104 teams finishing with a record of 7-2.

All the boys are part of Lower Perkiomen Little League. Each year after rec-season an all-star team is selected and they play in the Little League All-Star tournament which ends in July. The team stays together and plays travel ball through the fall, work out in the winter and play more travel ball in the spring.

They played about 90 games together over the last two years.

“That’s a light schedule compared to some teams,” added head coach Tom Moore Sr. “Being away from home where the only thing to do is play baseball is an awesome thing for these boys to experience at a young age.”

Were the boys tired of baseball or of each other? Far from it.

“It’s better than anything playing with these guys,” said David Smith (SS, P, OF).

They where thrilled to have the opportunity to play in Cooperstown, home of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

“It’s senior week for 12-year-old baseball players,” said David’s mom Diana.

“It was so much fun,” said Tommy Moore Jr. (3B, 1B, P). “The whole team stayed together in the barracks.”

Tommy, who enjoyed the “Who’s on First” Abbot and Costello bit played on repeat at the museum, is part of the team’s comic relief. He is also a part of the “Despicable Alley” part of the barracks that sounds a lot more fun than the Yankees “Murderers Row”.

“It smelled really bad but a lot of funny things happen,” said coach Moore.

Instead of players swapping steroids, each team designs its own pins for the tournament, and players try to gather as many as they can.

Aside from the fun, there are plenty of games. Cooperstown Dreams Field hosts 13 weeks of tournaments that begin in May and bring teams from all of the country and some parts of Canada.

“Most of the teams there are fairly high quality. Some are insanely high. It’s a chance for the boys to spend a week playing baseball against different levels of competition,” said coach Moore.

Smith pitched three games, but his highlights came in the field with two diving catches and at the plate with two home runs. He is a Yankee fan, but I couldn’t hold it against him since his opinion on Alex Rodriguez and the performance enhancing drug scandal was more insightful than anything I have heard from the talking heads on ESPN.

Kyle Dawson (3B, CF, P) is a native New Yorker who idolizes Derek Jeter down to his No. 2 jersey and slick fielding. His “Cooperstown moment” came when he took and 3-1 pitch and smacked it for his first career grand slam.

“I thought it would hit the fence. I’m lucky it went over,” said Dawson.

Their week-long trip ended against “an absurdly good team” according to coach Smith. It still provided the feel good moment for Tommy Smith Jr., who rang up a bases loaded strikeout against the opposing teams slugger.

The tournament officially ended the Skippack Stars Little League career. The next step brings bigger fields, different pitches and executing the intricacies of baseball like hitting behind the runner. Coach Moore noted that 80 percent of Little Leaguers retire at the age of twelve.

“These boys are all good enough to move on. It was special group to coach and I am very lucky,” said coach Moore. “I hope the feeling they got playing in Cooperstown is going to carry over for them and hopefully they will stay involved in the game of baseball.”

The boys love the game. They proudly wear their uniforms and hats and show off their prize pins. The rest of their life right now is a dream.

They could lead their high school team to the state title, toss a perfect game in Legion Ball in front of a scout, get a college scholarship and pitch in the warm Florida weather, or be on the mound in 2026 for their first MLB start in red pin stripes for the Phillies.

If they never stop dreaming, they will always be a Dream Team.

Faith, Family and Hometown

Faith, family and hometown. They are three basic pillars that people build their lives on. Isn’t the third one supposed to be “country”? I was tempted but thought about it. For most of us, our lives happen in our hometown or pretty close to it.

In a Pew Research Center survey, 57 percent say they have not lived in the U.S. outside their current state and 37 percent have never left their hometown. It also finds that people overwhelmingly say they remain because of family ties and because their hometowns are good places to raise children.

Faith, family and my hometown have instilled in me a core belief and strength. They are the foundation of who I am. Sometimes the relationship I’ve had with them has been very complicated. But this is not the week to dwell on that part. On Sunday, Aug. 18, the Feast of Maria Santissima del Soccorso di Sciacca (MSS) will celebrate its 109th year. The 11:30 a.m. Mass at Holy Saviour Church in Norristown will be followed by a street procession and a day-long social at Saviour Hall. For me, it is one of the few times that faith, family, and hometown are together.

“I have a love for the parish and the people of Norristown. They are wonderful people that I am proud to serve. Every day I see their generosity, faith and love of God. It’s magnificent,” said Monsignor Charles Sangermano, pastor of Holy Saviour Church.

My grandparents where a part of the MSS club when it was located on Marshall Street and the feast was a three-day-long event. It was an annual rite of summer that brought family together that we only saw at holidays.

There is power in a community gathering. The area feasts are open to everyone, not just parishioners or Catholics. Any type of event that invites the town — from arts fests, farmers markets to feasts — are necessary and important. It instills a sense of pride in the town and camaraderie among neighbors.

Talking about one’s faith in the pages of a newspaper has a certain taboo to it. Some columnists never mention it. In the 10 months I’ve written this weekly column, I’ve mentioned my ties to Holy Saviour School and church. It is a part of who I am. A big part. So is my family. So is Norristown.

Many of those who attend and volunteer for the area feasts feel the same way. A few of them go above and beyond. I only had to look in the kitchen.

Carl Venezia has been manning the steaming pots containing the feasts signature pork sandwiches for almost four decades.

“My grandfather was a charter member and I got involved in my 20s,” said Venezia who grew up on Oak Street minutes from the MSS club. “The feast was a tradition we grew up in. The day of the procession we had relatives over the house. It was a big, day-long celebration.”

“A lot of generous people help with execution of all three feasts,” said Monsignor Sangermano referring to the Holy Saviour and Mount Carmel feasts. “Carl is a wonderful example of the zeal and devotion the people of this town have to their patron saint.”

When the MSS feast was a three-day event, Venezia, his father and brothers made up to 3,800 pounds. For the one-day event, they prepare 1,900 pounds two weeks ahead. On Sunday, Venezia will be joined in the kitchen by his son-in-law and Duke LaPenta. They will be manning six large pans on the stove while Venezia constantly tastes and seasons the pork to assure optimal flavor. He will only have one sandwich on the sturdy Conshohocken Bakery roll.

“It makes me proud because my family has been in the meat business for 53 years,” said Venezia, whose butcher shop is located on Germantown Pike in Plymouth Meeting. “It’s part of family pride. I feel like I’m keeping our family tradition going at the same time of the MSS tradition.”

“The pork sandwich, there is something about it that you only want to have it in context of the feast,” said Monsignor Sangermano. “It’s good at home but it’s extra good at the feast.”

When Monsignor said that I was still trying to get over the fact that he tries to discipline himself and only have one sandwich during the feast. Maybe two if he was especially hungry. I am good for at least two after the procession, and I may or may not bring a few home for later.

I had a few days to think over his words and I have to agree that even the pork sandwich — okay sandwiches — I have later that day are not the same.

Maybe some things are meant to be together. Like the feast and pork sandwiches, enjoyed in the comfort of family and faith in my hometown.