Some Things The Capital District Gets Right

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We’ve been away from Albany-Schenectady-Troy for three years now (or four, depends on how you count). Family and other things bring us back often, but not often enough. As much as we love living in a town that’s as close to Stars Hollow as may be possible, as much as living in the far western shadow of the City of Brotherly Love opens up tremendous opportunities, and as much as we’ve made a lot of new friends and had great new experiences, there are some things about the Capital District that I miss. I was reminded of a number of them on a quick trip back a couple of weeks ago.

  1. Fish fry. What the hell, Pennsylvania? Is a little deep fried haddock so hard to do? It’s not that there are no restaurants that will fry up a slab of fish, but there are no seasonal stands devoted exclusively to the art of deep frying fish and dispensing Sysco tartar sauce in tiny paper cups. I miss it terribly, even if I only partook three or four times a year.
  2. Bagels. I know, Albany bagels are nothing like New York City bagels. I get it. But here I am, ostensibly closer to The City That’s Afraid to Sleep, and believe me, what they call a bagel here you wouldn’t give to a tot as a teething ring. When I’m back in the Collar City, I snag a frozen dozen (begging not to get a bag half-full of the abomination that is a chocolate chip bagel) from Psychedelicatessen and they have to last me a while.
  3. Pulled pork. Barbecue’s a southern thing, right? And I’m like 25 miles from the Mason-Dixon line, right? Damned if I can find pulled pork that even approximates the worst barbecue in the Capital District. Forget the Dinosaur, even; the Pig Pit in Cohoes spoiled me. What we get down here is flavorless.
  4. Mopco. If you have never been to the Mop and Bucket Company, you are missing really excellent improv. They’ve moved out of the basement of Proctor’s and opened their own theater in an old fire station on North Jay Street in Schenectady, pretty much across from Perreca’s. Since doing that, they have expanded their offerings, so there are different kinds of shows, and not just improv. We got to see storytelling one night and great improv the next. It costs less than a movie for people to entertain you live. It’s human and funny and you should just go. Just go. We have nothing like it here.
  5. Lakes. You have so many lakes up there. Did you know that the Keystone State was pretty much neglected by the glaciers? I’m serious. The few lakes we have are manmade, and the rivers we have are not only mostly tide-free, but are either completely empty or at flood stage. Not big on the middle ground. As a dedicated canoe/kayak person, this is vexing.
  6. The Troy Farmer’s Market. Oh, sure, we have a lovely little farmer’s market down here. It even goes year-round, outside. It’s small and efficient, has a wonderful little children’s play area and local entertainers. But if you haven’t been to the one in Troy – again, just go. To have that in your midst and not appreciate it is just unconscionable. And when you’re there, get some Flour City Pasta, which is from way out by Rochester and, again, exceeds anything of the kind we’ve been able to find around here.
  7. Mac’s Drive-in in Watervliet.  It’s a lovely little neighborhood gathering spot, with homemade ice cream. It is wonderful.

Occasional entry

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I’ve been working on a couple of pieces that I’d love to share here for quite some time, but then I’ve been working on pieces for Hoxsie that take up time, I’ve been watching the Giro d’Italia, I’ve been getting out on my bike, I’ve been not getting out on my bike. It’s that time of year where we have a couple of great days in a row and get a million things done, and then it rains for a solid week and I get laid out with a serious cold. So here is what’s up:

  1. I spent maybe 20 hours getting my old table saw dialed in so I can reliably cut accurate miters for picture frames with it. Had to take the whole thing apart, replace a broken shim, clean out the case for the first time, then slowly slowly get it back into perfect alignment — which of course has to be checked every single time I set up a cut. I’ve resorted to a fancy device that tells me the blade’s angle to the table, because eyeballing it with framing squares was not working at all. Finally got a good miter gauge, too, and a miter slot (this saw had a sliding table, which I’d categorize as “seemed like a good idea at the time”). All this means I can finally, with some reliability, produce some passable mitered corners that match up and glue up nicely.
  2. Well, there’s the Giro, which normally inspires me to get out and pedal except I’ve had my second major cold since Christmas and my sinuses are impacted with something as dense as silicone caulk, but also runny. And it has hardly mattered because it did nothing but rain for two weeks.
  3. I have gone insane with the vinyl LPs lately. Lots of new, lots of old. Of an evening, I may move from the reissue of Elton John’s “17-11-70” to some ancient Moody Blues to a pair of Tower of Power records that I never owned before. Apparently I own two Sade albums, and I like them! And my new copy of my favorite Ventures album, “The Ventures Knock Me Out,” is in really sweet shape. Stylistically, consistency is not my strong point.
  4. Speaking of music, April was insane for concerts. Dave Alvin, Aimee Mann, John K. Samson, and discovered some great new artists who opened, The Worriers and Sarah Borges. Plus, our local favorites were out and about. There was so much music.
  5. Finally broke into Nathan Filbrick’s “Valiant Ambition,” a great look at what went on between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. I’m not a big military guy at all, but I am always down for a great account of the Battle of Valcour Island. It’s always incredible to imagine how naval battles played out in a time when you couldn’t necessarily put your ship where you wanted it to be, and had to rely on the wind. It mattered that the gigantic new warship the British built specifically to take over Lake Champlain was square-rigged – it meant it couldn’t sail into the wind. Turns out: disadvantage!
  6. Daughter shared with me her proposed playlist for songs she has to perform for her humanities practicum, and I’ve gotta say, I was a little choked up. My plot to deeply imprint my musical tastes on another human being has been a complete success! Also, it involves The Ventures. So just imagine. Somebody may be getting a Mos-rite bass for graduation.
  7. Yes, the heat came on yesterday morning. Yes, it is going to be 87 degrees today.
  8. I had the month of April in the impeachment pool. Sad that I lost.
  9. No, I cannot get my theme to keep an ordered list in the same typeface that I prescribed for the rest of my posts. Thanks for asking.

Proving that that rash of entries earlier in the year was an anomaly.

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Well, we knew that was going to be the case, didn’t we? A private person with a public blog and an open identity is something of an oddity anyway. When I started this way back when, it was something of a replacement for journaling, something of a way to reach out and have a persona on the web. The reality is that it has never been deeply personal, and these days, a lot of the things on my mind fall into the “deeply personal” category. So instead of sharing those, I write about printers who made tomato wine.

Cycling is off to a decent spring start, although I failed in my efforts to keep up training over the winter. I was trying to deal with some pain – when rest didn’t help, I saw a doctor who, when I told him I couldn’t sit cross-legged anymore, asked “Why would you want to do that?” Of course it was more than that, and for a while I couldn’t really get on the bicycle without pain. I’ve done some PT and am probably as good as I’m going to be. The good news is that cycling doesn’t aggravate it; the bad news is it doesn’t make it better, either. Been out doing some hillwork because it’s way too easy around here to just take the flat trails and then, when the 50-mile rides through the hills come up later in the year, I beg off them because I know I won’t survive. 1700 feet of climb yesterday, 1200 on the two outings last week, so starting to get it up there. I definitely felt it yesterday, even though none of it was extreme. Last week I tried to get up a 16% grade and just couldn’t (and that, my friends, is what my triple was for). Yesterday, nothing steeper than a momentary 10%, but those still hurt. Today, work and rain so I’m off the hook.

Other things? On my 10th or 20th reorganization of the basement since we moved here. Long and narrow makes for an interesting attempt at a woodshop, but this is what it is. Kayaking will be underway next month – need to wait for water levels to lower and temperatures to rise. Pretty much everyone in my family except me is preparing for a move, major or minor, so we’re trying to help everybody with those but, being in the remote wilds of Philadelphia, we’re not much help.

Small city living continues to amaze and please.

Music is awesome. We were lucky enough to finally see John K. Samson (formerly The Weakerthans) the other night, and before and since I’ve been thinking a lot about the closing lyrics from “Postdoc Blues“:

So take that laminate out of your wallet and read it,

and recommit yourself to the healing of the world,

and to the welfare of all creatures upon it.

Pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart.

Those seem like words to live by. Is that so hard?

(One could not be blamed for wondering how those lyrics could possibly work in song. Do click the link and watch the video.)

Hall of Fame

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Let’s make it clear: I despise wall-to-wall carpet. It just captures dirt and dust and can’t ever really be cleaned. I especially despise beige carpet. I super especially despise beige carpet padded so thick you feel like you’re walking on a pillow. And that was what we had on the stairs (where it really constitutes a balance hazard) and in the upstairs hall – I’d already torn it out of the bedrooms. The stairs, I started in on renovating about this time last year. It took a while, but I did get it done. The upstairs hallway was next.

Partly we were inspired by what we wanted to put there: a rug. Not just any rug, but a custom-made knit rug sized exactly to fit in our long, narrow hallway. We were wandering around Kathleen’s Fiber Arts in Troy and were enamored of some small wool rugs she had knit, and thought how nice it would be to have one of them in our hall – only, you know, longer. Turns out, not a problem. She was most happy to do a custom job for us. Now, having someone knit you a rug is not cheap, but we thought of how much more we would like it than anything else we could possibly find. Some commercial remnant? Two runners shoved together? It just made more sense to get what we really wanted. So we ordered it, and aimed to have it done in time to be our Christmas gift to ourselves. So it was.

That meant, of course, having to get the old carpet out and refinish the floor, which is always a leap of faith in a 116-year-old house. There was no telling what was underneath the carpet. The stairs hadn’t gone too badly, although the entire house is floored in pine, but when I took up the carpet in the main bedroom, there were some gaps between boards, and a gigantic former stovepipe hole that had to be addressed. So, in the hallway, who knew.

But it turned out not to be too bad. I mean, of course there were 400 million staples that had to be pried up, one at a time. There was one little place where some rot had happened at some point. There was some unevenness, and some boards that needed to be screwed down.

Sometimes, it’s better not to know. I lifted up one of the loose floorboards just to see what was underneath, and found the dry skeleton of old knob and tube wiring that apparently traveled in the floor space way back when. I put the board back, and quickly.

Oh yeah, there was a gap. Held together by screwed-in bits of sheet metal. (Drywall screws, predictably.)

As messy as it was, a little (or a lot) of sanding and it didn’t look too bad.

Four coats of Minwax oil-modified water-based polyurethane later, and it looked pretty good:

So, finally, with the rug (very soft on the bare feet, by the way) in place:

Hidden Figures

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Got to see “Hidden Figures” over the weekend. This weekend, of all weekends – both the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., and the last weekend that a rational thinker will be in the executive office, at least for a while.

The movie, by the way, is better than flawless. It shows, it doesn’t tell, a very important story, without preaching or swelling up the “triumph of the human will” music. Because as much as this movie is about triumph, and as much as it is very much a feel-good movie, there is also something profoundly sad behind it – and that is that it has a story to tell at all. And it has several.

First, the story, focusing on three black female pioneers at NASA, very matter-of-factly reminds us how straight-up awful it was to be African-American, how deeply ingrained the Jim Crow laws were (separate library books – where there weren’t separate libraries). This was during my lifetime, but early in it, and it’s easy for those details to slip from memory. Being Northern, we tend to shake it off more and forget there were plenty of iniquities up here as well (redlining, anyone?).

And if we like to think that’s all a comfortable distance in the mirror (and it’s not), add to that the challenges the subjects faced as women, and women in science. Both my daughters deal with the fact that they are still very much in the minority in their programs. Engineering programs are up to 18-20 percent female now, and the old prejudices continue. Both have gone to schools led by women, which has barely had an effect, and both have seen continuing institutional and cultural bias that affects how they are perceived, how they are able to participate, and what it is considered acceptable for them to do.

So while the movie featured some fabulous portrayals by seriously talented actresses (and the supporting cast, with an exercise in understatement by Kevin Costner), I couldn’t help but think how sad and stupid and wrong all this was and is. Why would we deny the best and brightest because of their skin color or gender? Why is that even “our” option? So much wasted human potential, lost to us forever, because blacks couldn’t attend courses in a white school, because women shouldn’t be doing math (their tender reproductive systems might suffer). We have chosen to hobble ourselves, in order to . . . what?

Growing up in the ’60s, when the idea was that we would overcome all these unfounded prejudices and hatreds, it just seemed like it was a matter of time. Rights were gained, laws were passed, and it seemed like by now we would be past most of this. It certainly did not seem like we would be riding a resurgent wave of crazed, open racism. I’d like to say the same for misogyny but there wasn’t even the same pretense with regard to women’s rights by those who oppose them. Whether it’s unjust rates of incarceration or forced unnecessary ultrasounds, I can’t imagine thinking this would still be happening.

So, yes, “Hidden Figures” is a note-perfect motion picture, and one of the rare important movies that doesn’t feel like a homework assignment. Its portrayals are supremely human and real (as were the performances in director Theodore Melfi’s previous feature, “St. Vincent”), and it’s supremely entertaining. As sad as the conditions at the time were for the people affected by them, I couldn’t help but feel a strong stirring of nostalgia for one aspect of the culture the movie portrayed, the culture I grew up in – a culture that valued, praised, and celebrated science. A culture that took pride in advancements . . . in moving forward, not backward.

I Remember When I Could Remember Things

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Truly. I once had a great memory. What happened to that? Is it just age, or stress, or just too damn many years and things to remember (which, of course, would be age)? Not clear. But it is true, I once remembered things that had happened not only to me but to those around me. I had a great knack for knowing the events of certain years. Increasingly, I’m finding myself unclear when things happened or if they happened at all.

A case in point came in in a recent somewhat minor family argument over an event from some years ago. Honestly, I’d have struggled to put a year to the event, but I thought I remembered a chunk of the particulars pretty well. Someone else remembered it quite, quite differently, and of course that’s how memory is – faulty, subjective, unreliable. I was pretty clear on my perspective of events, but just the doubt was enough to make me doubt myself. And I carried that doubt around for a week until just now when, through the miracle of my having once been a blogger, I found an account of the event, right here on my very own internet, that told it pretty much the way I remember it. In that case, it turns out, my memory was good (though, again, I could never have said what year it happened).

But while looking for that, I found another entry, one that relayed how I went to, and enjoyed, a movie that, had you asked me twenty minutes ago, I would have sworn I had never seen. With memory now jogged, I can even remember where we went to see it, but without that jog, I’d have denied I ever saw it.

I really think a lot of it has to do with the years, and what was going on during them. There are some pretty big stress-created craters in my timeline, when all I think I was doing was holding it together. The months following 9/11 were a big crater – I remember a huge amount of my work-related activities in those months, but what went on in family life I’m afraid I’ve barely a clue. The years I spent trying to consult independently are also a bit of a blur, in terms of remembering what happened when. I remember the summer of 1989 at a level of detail that I’d probably be able to reconstruct in a calendar – but to remember the years my daughters graduated, I sometimes need to do a little bit of math. Vexing.

Right now, the stress is locked in high, which probably means that in a few years, when I want to remember how it was that these holidays came to be so strange logistically, I’m going to wish I had written it down here. Family obligations have caused some lengthy separation, multiple and concurrent AirBnBs in different cities, car rentals and other goings on that I know I’m going to be confused about in a couple of years. Heck, I’m confused about them now. How did we get to this place? It’s never a straight line.

At least 2016 can’t happen again.

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Complacency Will Destroy Us

I generally have a policy against wishing away the days, weeks, months, and years, but 2016 is one I won’t be sorry to see go.  Personally, there have been better. While being able to enjoy our first “summer of fun” in some time, having a summer without major construction projects and even sneaking in a vacation, finding new places to bike and paddle, that relaxation was countered by other events.

There were losses in the family, two more empty seats at the Christmas Eve festivity that my mother has put on since somewhere around 1970. It’s more Christmas to me than Christmas itself, particularly now that there are no children in the house, and as the years go on there are just more of us that aren’t there any more. That sense of loss starts to weigh on the soul, and this year it weighed more heavily than in most years.

Family has struggled, too, with health and personal issues causing pain, literal and otherwise, in daughters whose distance I now feel too acutely. Sharing suffering over Skype is something of a miracle, but when we hang up there are still hundreds of miles between us and our children, and the desire to just get in the car and be there is strong (and sometimes that’s what happens).

And then, of course, there’s the whole thing of the country descending into fascism, racism, and some other -isms that I had really thought, when I was growing up in the ‘60s, we’d just be over by now. It seemed like all we needed was time, and eventually the old “set in their ways” people would fall off the conveyor belt into the trash bin of history, and what was left would be a somewhat better world. Instead, we have a huge reactionary element now trying to get back a nation that never existed – it was a construct of the prevailing culture that simply excluded everything that wasn’t it from the official story – while maintaining the myth of American exceptionalism without the messy multi-cultural/immigrant parts of it. So, yes, going into this cowardly old world (because bravery is acceptance of others; this whole reactionary culture is based on fear) in the new year, I’m more than a little concerned. Never been a fan of mob rule, amateur government, or presidents who are proclaimed to be kings. Our nation also used to not be a fan of any of that, but as had always been suspected, all those highly selective constitutional “scholars,” who mostly couldn’t memorize the single amendment they proclaimed the most important, didn’t believe in the document at all. They just believed in leveraging the rule of law against those who do believe in it. And it’s working.

Partly because of all of that, partly because of the ability to be more personally connected through other media, and partly because my other blog, Hoxsie, takes a fair amount of effort, this blog has been mostly silent. I don’t know if it’ll stay that way or not in the coming year. There are things to be said that don’t fit in a Tweet or a Facebook post. There’s a continuity I’d like to maintain with a blog that’s more than a decade old (if not more than a decade full), so I may redouble my efforts here. Or you may get the occasional cryptic photograph.

In any event, if I know you, I wish you the best for the new year. If I don’t know you, I also wish you the same. Be good to other human beings. It’s all we’re here for.

The Sleep of Reason

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Listen, if you want to have blood drawn by someone who’s never drawn blood before, by all means, have at it. That’s your problem. If you want surgery done by someone who has never done surgery before, that’s also your problem. Go ahead. But if you suggest trucks, buses and planes should be commanded by absolute amateurs, someone else is going to get hurt. And if you want to put the workings of a complex, powerful government in the hands of amateurs, ideologues and worse, a lot of people are going to get hurt.

As someone who tried to faithfully serve the public to the best of my ability for a number of years, who tried to bring reason and logic to my small corner of governing, it has always been painful to watch those who enter government with more personal motives, whether they are ideological or driven toward personal gain. And it has been hard to watch as qualified, dedicated individuals decide to leave public service, or never to enter it, because it has come to be universally disparaged. This will only get worse.

But now, we have decided to put the federal executive branch and the armed services in the charge of an individual who, by any measure, appears to be unstable at best, and who has nothing but contempt for the institutions he is supposed to be in charge of.  We haven’t just put a pilot with zero experience behind the yoke – we’ve put in a pilot who hates planes. And everyone associated with planes.

And he’s staffing up with an array of horribles that, prior to his election, no one would have accused him of considering. None would have accused him of thinking of someone who actually leaked secrets to be Secretary of State, when his whole campaign was that Clinton could have exposed secrets. None would have accused him of considering an education secretary with not only no educational experience of any kind, but an absolute hatred for the very system she’s supposed to be put in charge of. None would have accused him of putting an avowed anti-feminist, racist, white supremacist who believes that only property owners should be able to vote in place as his “chief strategist,” because even he could not possibly be that bold. And yet . . .

I’m hearing a lot of “wait and see.” There was an amount of that in 1930s Germany, too, and a lot of accommodation because of the thought that Hitler couldn’t possibly be as bad as his words would indicate. History showed that he meant everything he said, and then some.  The thing is, we don’t need to wait to see. It’s happening right now. Racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT acts are being committed day after day by an emboldened minority unleashing hate. These are not just far-off events or abstractions; these are things that have happened to people I know. We don’t need to stand by while we Make America Germany Again. Let’s not.

Framing My Life

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Blueberries Picture FrameSo, what does a man of a certain age (let’s just say that getting to double my current age is now at best unlikely, and is likely undesirable) do once the kids are gone, the career is relatively stable, and the house projects are getting complex? Seems like there are two routes for such a man: grow a white beard and become a Civil War fanatic, or finally get more serious about some woodworking. Given a recent explosion of creativity from the spousal unit, which creativity requires not only frames for displays in art galleries but very special frames (oil pastels don’t like to be pressed against glass), I decided to get serious about some finer skills and frame-building. That means getting serious about mitered corners and rabbet joints. It meant finally getting a good router table (you cannot imagine the lengths I have gone to and what I have done without one, and I cannot imagine why that was the case). It means getting some quality router bits and angle guides, and really making sure the saw is dialed in perfectly. It means measure 5 or 6 times, cut once. There is a lot of arithmetic.

The first framing effort, suspending glass away from an oil pastel painting, looked pretty good. Until I saw it in the gallery, and saw everything that was wrong with it. The angles were a little skewed, the miters less than perfect, the staining a bit uneven – all things that would have been hidden by paint, but we went natural and in the end I didn’t love it. The second was a big piece that required plexi instead of glass, and it went better but I still didn’t have my miters quite perfect. The third was better still, and didn’t look embarrassing hung in a gallery. Getting there.

Then we had this painting sitting above the mantel, purchased from a local artist. Just love it, but it came in the most rudimentary of frames and I was sick of looking at it that way. I saw another large piece at a gallery and stole the idea for how it was framed. Knowing I was going to paint the perimeter, and given the size, I went with rabbetted joints, rather than miters, and rabbetted the inlay piece too, made out of some birch that for some reason I’ve had and never used for more than 20 years. This piece came up pretty damned close to perfect. Not quite, but it’s just about at the point that woodworking should be, where only the builder can find the flaws. And it really makes the scene look complete. (Thanks again to the spousal unit, the house actually looks like we decorated it on purpose.)

We have other things I want to be able to build, and that means I’ve spent about three weeks rearranging our tiny, highly-longitudinal basement. Someone recently asked me if I had a woodshop, and I just had to laugh. I have a lot of tools that I have to move into place every time I want to use them. I don’t really even have room for the table saw to sit in place where I would need to use it. It’s on wheels so I can spin it around and fit longer pieces of wood. A new working table, only for assembly, is drying and ready for the legs to be mounted, and a million other things have been rearranged around the basement so that I can have something like a workflow.

Maybe I should just let the whiskers grow and take a drive to Gettysburg.