The blandness of modernity owes largely to the lack of fire escapes.
Remember that thing a little while back where I was posting regularly again? Yeah, that stopped. If you like it short-form and forgettable, I tweet much more often. If you like it historic, Hoxsie is still getting updated most days. Other than that, I haven’t even had the commitment to paste a banner over the name of this blog to represent the fact that my life is now quite urban indeed.
So in place of cohesive, coherent writing, let’s do a Top 10 again:
- Mariachi Flor de Toloache. I’m not even kidding. Just accept it.
- Bloody Mohawk. Following up on Hinderaker’s “The Two Hendricks,” because it’s hard to get enough of the extremely complicated relationships between the Dutch, English, French, Iroquois, Mohawks specifically, and other native Americans generally. First time in I just couldn’t get into it; second time in it turns out to be crisply written and informative, and has a better explanation of Conrad Weiser than I have seen anywhere else. Everybody loves William Johnson, and nobody gives Weiser his due. And they were both right to distrust the New England evangelicals.
- Actually training for cycling. After years of doing what I do on the bike, poorly and without much focus, I decided that in order to get through the winter (when we thought there was going to be one), I signed up at my favorite new local cycling shop for a series of training classes taught by an Olympic athlete. A bunch of serious, experienced racers and me, but the beauty of the computerized trainers is they conform to your output and abilities, and over the past few weeks I have been able to actually work on technique and endurance in ways I never did before. My previous technique has always been to go as far as I can go and still get back, which is fun but doesn’t actually train your body. And the upside is that I have been diligent about getting on the bike during the week (usually outside, it’s been so warm), because if I don’t I will actually die on Monday night.
- The holidays. Those were a thing. The second year of not having a home base for Christmas, though this year elder daughter was able to host part of the family festivities. But it feels very weird to not have Christmas in your own house, and even weirder to be one of those people who has to clutter up the highways on the appointed travel days.
- In my ongoing tradition of watching TV shows 10 years or more after they’re a thing, we just binge-watched “Alias,” which mostly led to me screaming at the television each night, “Why are you trusting Arvin Sloane??!” We then upset tradition by watching “Jessica Jones,” which was excellent, but now I think it’s time for a little less obvious blood-letting and something more along the lines of psychological damage, like “Gilmore Girls.”
- Similarly, I have to work up to Tarantino movies. I always love them, but I always need to know what level of gore or worse I’m in for. (Though if we could have seen “The Hateful 8” in 70mm, I’d have jumped right in.) So we finally got around to watching “Django Unchained,” and immediately regretted having waited so long. Christoph Waltz is a delightful revelation in it.
- While we’re on movies, “Carol” was surprisingly lovely and real (and so gorgeous to look at; it captured the period perfectly). It was weird to see it at the Formerly The Spectrum, as, having moved away, I sorta assumed I’d never go there again. But there we were. “Brooklyn” was also a much better, more interesting, less sentimental film than I’d expected it to be. (Sometimes these things just go a certain way. This one didn’t, quite.)
- The photographs of Dave Heath, still on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Incredible street/life photography from the ’50s and ’60s, the kind of work that I used to want to do.
- There is a serious ice cream shortage going on around here. Our neighborhood shop is seasonal, and this is not the season. There are some others around, but not quite of that quality, and the good one over in Royersford requires getting in the car, which is something we tend not to do. The jones hit me so hard that I was thrilled to find some form of a premium chain store near where I had to take a computer for repair, but in the end I put on my McKayla Maroney unimpressed face. So either spring’s gotta come or I’ve gotta drive somewhere for good ice cream.
- My first experiment with little adhesive LED lighting strips turned out a 94% success. Which is pretty good. (I’d be happier had I gotten them to line up very straight, but that proved tricky). We needed a light source in the living room that wouldn’t bounce off the TV screen at night, and nothing commercial seemed to be working out, so I pretty much built my own sconce and integrated it into the window trim . . . up high, dimmable, provides more than adequate evening light and doesn’t reflect at all. But those little strips are just a touch more finicky when it comes to connections than they lead you to believe.
- First, spring comes earlier down here. After 54 years in upstate New York, it’s hard to grasp the idea that you can safely put plants in the ground prior to Mother’s Day (and even that wasn’t always safe). Given that we really haven’t had the time to get our tiny tiny back yard garden plotted out (as that will involve finding a new home for canoes), we’re signed up for a community garden plot up on the north side, and already have to think about getting it cleaned up and ready for planting. In March. (Although official early planting begins in April. April.)
- Despite that, we had some late snow that really pounded the bike trails so I had to wait for that to thaw before I could really get out. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day is my signal that the new riding season has begun, and traditionally, that means going out in some pretty raw weather and climbing up to Albany Rural Cemetery or around local neighborhoods in order to get some strength back into my legs. Today it meant almost 60 degrees (but with a wicked wind) and a need to search out some of those hills. Roads around here are tough (Pennsylvania’s motto should be “The Shoulderless State), and in case I had any illusions that roads are better maintained down here than in the Empire State, those illusions have been shattered. So spring riding is even more of a challenge than it used to be.
- The light. The light is weird, or at least takes getting used to. After 23 years in one house, with windows everywhere, I could tell the time just by how the light looked in the house. I got to know places the sun only reached on certain days of the year, odd reflections that only happened now and again. Now we’re in a place with limited light (the lack of a basking room may be a problem) and it seems to show up in the oddest places.
- “Jeopardy,” the only thing we watch that isn’t on the internet, is on at 7 o’clock down here, before “Wheel of Fortune.” Somehow that feels like it’s just messing with the natural order of the universe.
- In addition, the only ads we see are during “Jeopardy,” and most of them are for the Pennsylvania Lottery. Unlike the NYS Lottery, where we swindled people in the name of education, the Keystone State swindles people in the name of helping old people. As such, instead of Yolanda Vega, each night there is a different designated old person who watches numbered ping pong balls pop up in a tube. Somehow this makes me sad.
I moved six months ago, but my previous internet provider, Ever-Growing Monopoly of Suck®, still continues to faithfully deliver all the spam that comes to my old account. So if you don’t mind, let me just get some of my responses to my spam out of the way right here.
From: NBC SPORTS
Subject: NASCAR is coming to NBC and NBCSN.
Thanks. You’ve made a serious mistake. The thought that even one electron had to move in order to bring me this incredibly useless information is a tragedy in my view.
From: SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR
Subject: Webmail Quta Exceeded.
Dear User, due to the recent upgrade of our database. You are required to update your webmail details.
Thanks! I’ll get right on that!
From: James Williams
Subject: I tried to reach you several times, please reply
I write, asking for your indulgence in re-profiling to tune of Fourteen Million, Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars (US$14.5m) which we want kept safely overseas under your supervision.
James, Mr. Raymond Wilson of the Emirates Finance Security Company has made me a much, much sweeter deal. He has already paid for the delivery charges and the insurance fee. You’re going to have to up your game if you want me to be your overseas money mule.
From: Smith Wilson
How are you today and your family it has been a long time you may not remember me again I contacted you last time for you to assist me regarding an inheritance fund which I told you that it is not a scam and I promised you that you should not worry that when I receive the fund I will compensate you, finally I have receive the fund I am now doing multi million investment in caman island I have instructed my secretary to issue ATM what of $700,000 dollars for compensation for your assistance in the past, so the ATM card now is ready for you to receive it is with my secretary contact him now on this information below.
Smith, my apologies. When I first read your note, I missed the part where you explained that it is not a scam. Silly of me and I hope you can see your way to forgive me and still issue my $700,000 dollars of compensation.
From: Kenneth Lou Clark
Subject: Hi How are you? Breaking news from Oprah:
Kenneth, Kenneth, Kenneth. You’re not even trying.
From: Branden Otto
Subject: Want new girls every day? OOOOHHHH YEEE!!!
There is no need to threaten me.
From: Addiction Detox Centers
Subject: Check in to drug rehab and get clean.
I’m confused. Is this one of those places where you go into rehab but you can’t get out until you’ve bought a time-share?
Subject: Schedule Delivery Your Family Inheritance
I am Diplomat Mopina Johnson from Hong Kong I am now in Bellingham International Airport Washington.This is to inform you that I have been advised to deliver your consignment to you as the content was declared as diputed but now resolved Acesstral Family valuables. Valued five million five hundred United State dollars only. And you are urgently advised to send me your Address, Contact Phone Numbers Next of Kin and Personal Identification for delivery of your consignment to you. Get back to me immediately you receive my email.
You know, asking about my “next of kin” almost seems like a red flag. You’re not going to murder me, are you?
So, here’s the thing about our pending new hometown of Phoenixville, PA: the movie “The Blob” was largely filmed there and in the surrounding areas. Doc Hallen’s house is still there. So is the Colonial Theater, from which the teens run screaming from a monster feature when the blob consumes the projectionist and oozes through the louvers and into the theater. Let’s face it, “The Blob” would probably be forgotten had it not starred a youngish (27, playing 17) Steve McQueen. It is not one of the finest movies of all time. And the fact that it featured Phoenixville could have remained nothing more than an interesting bit of local trivia, just as with the filming of scenes around Albany and Schenectady in recent years.
But instead, there is Blobfest, an enthusiastic celebration of this and other B movies. It commences with “The Run Out” — costumed participants pay for the privilege of running screaming from the theater in advance of the blob. There is a Tin Foil Hat parade, a costume contest (which Mothra and his companions, shown above, won this year), and a Fire Extinguisher Drill Team Parade. There are vendors, antique cars, and double features of “The Blob” and other movies like “Mothra” or “King Kong Vs. Godzilla.” There is a lot of fun.
So we spent the weekend at Blobfest, and visiting the farmer’s market, checking out where to put in our canoes, finding the best coffee places, and chatting with local residents. There were dozens of cyclists out on the roads and paths, there were flotillas of kayaks, there were all kinds of people just out enjoying almost perfect days.
So, this is what’s happening now. In fact, it’s what’s been happening pretty much every weekend since the year began, and the year is slipping away quickly. First, I work like a dog at a new job that I love but have to put substantial effort into. It’s a pleasure to do something that matters again, but it does up the game when you’re giving advice that people are actually listening to. I do this far away from home. Then I look at the weather forecast for Thursday or, more often, Friday to see what natural disaster is going to prevent my return home, or, just as bad, interfere with my return to work the next week. Wishes for a mild winter went unanswered. The Philly area gets flummoxed by even a couple of inches of snow, and it got way more than that many, many times this winter. (Only the great humor of the Phoenixville Office of Emergency Management’s wonderful, useful, human alerts — and just try to imagine a humorous public safety agency in New York — helped me get through it.). Then, I drive 250 miles home, which takes under five hours except when it takes six (and getting back down takes four — there’s a quantum effect going on, to be certain). I arrive in the nick of time for whatever event we have planned for that night, sleep, get up early the next morning and start beating up the house some more. Mix in mandatory social events (no less pleasant for being mandatory, mind you), fall into exhausted but not restful sleep, get up and drive back to Pennsylvania. Lather, rinse, repeat.
We started some significant upgrades to the house we’ve lived in for two decades a couple of years back, not really knowing at that time that we’d be selling it. Thank goodness, or there’d be no hope of getting everything done that really needs to be done to sell a house. Even as it is, we can’t do it all ourselves, so we’re relying on our secret weapon, my 74-year-old mother, a tireless Tasmanian devil of home repair. She routinely does more in a day than I could in two, and has managed not only to paint all the things I was never going to get around to painting, but replaced three windows, put up wallpaper, and of course helped me with the unbelievably disastrous task of replacing the ceramic tile in the kitchen. There have been times when we’ve contemplated fire as an option.
One of the last things to get done was yet another of the many, many tasks that I never got around to while we lived in the house because a) we would have to totally vacate a room in order to do it, and we didn’t have the room to do that, and b) it would be a colossal pain in the ass. I have never been wrong in estimating that second part, and replacing the ceiling tiles in our bedroom was every bit of a colossal pain in the ass. Mostly so because it shouldn’t have been necessary. The old tiles were in fine shape and a coat of paint would have made them look nice, but they were falling down at odd angles in odd places, and there didn’t seem to be any way to tuck them back up. Sometimes a well-placed hidden tack can do miracles with ceiling tile, but this was not to be the case, as there seemed to be nothing to tack the sagging seams to. When the old tile came down, we found the reason — whoever had done this job had not bothered to space the standards where the seams would be. So all the standards had to be pulled down and put where they belonged. Just one of those things that never ends with this house.
Some of the other things, we won’t talk about. I’d like someone to buy this house.
I know that other people pick up their roots and move all the time, but I’m damned if I can understand how. We’ve been in the same house for 23 years, and along with various renovations there have been various dumpsters filled with construction waste and whatever else we had lying around that we didn’t think we needed anymore. I felt like we were pretty good at clearing things out over the years — the girls’ toys from when they were little are long since gone, old clothes go out the door, and our generally small space keeps us from filling it up too much.
And yet, over the past week, we crammed a dumpster with 15 yards of stuff that had accumulated. Some of it was just impossible to get rid of, like a steel enameled utility sink from the basement that I finally replaced a few years back but was unable to ever get up the stairs. It didn’t weigh less than 80 pounds, and that was after I separated it from its base. (Anyone who guessed “cotter pin” as the connector, you have won the no-prize.) There was crappy particle board furniture and somewhat less crappy wood furniture that just had to go away, and lots of things that I’d have had to take a saw to to fit into the regular garbage, and so it sat until there was another dumpster opportunity. All gone now. (Including one last Barbie shoe that suddenly appeared from nowhere.)
Renovations are proceeding apace, thanks only to my mother, who can do more painting and patching in a single day than I can in two. Honestly, I wish I could work at that pace. Last week I was looking at a destroyed dining room, despairing that it could ever be finished; then all of a sudden, in a single day she got all the new wallpaper up and it looked almost like a real room. I spent a very frustrating day yesterday trying to cut the ceiling cove — geometry is my greatest weakness when it comes to carpentry, and despite checking my angles over and over I still make frustrating mistakes, and so the trim, sorry to say, did not get done this weekend. But maybe next. Almost there.
Then, of course, we need to find something to live in. This has proven marginally difficult, but I have hope. The difficult part is that the houses we would want that have cropped up have sold in seconds, when we really aren’t ready to make an offer yet. The ones that haven’t sold quickly, we can see why, and having lived in a semi-finished fixer-upper for a couple of decades, I’ve decided I’d rather give my money to a bank than to the Home Depot, get some of my weekends back, and just live in a finished house. Other people do this, so I know it’s possible.
It is the little parts of this project that make me insane. I need a ceiling medallion to cover an unfortunate bit of a gap above one of my ceiling lamps, so I tried to find one at the Lowe’s. All I needed was a simple, small, 4″ medallion, of the type that should be perfectly standard. So I was surprised to find myself flying into a Hulk-like rage when I discovered that little, open medallions don’t really exist there, and that in fact most of the medallion display is given over to crafts projects you can do with medallions. I don’t know when this happened, or why, but apparently there is some kind of craze for taking ceiling medallions and stuffing clocks, mirrors, and photos into their centers. What they’re really NOT set up for anymore is hiding flaws in a ceiling, which is their complete and only true purpose. If whoever was responsible for this had been standing next to the display, beaming with pride at their innovation, there would have been an unscheduled, and entirely justified, strangling.
Crafters: just get a clock. Get a mirror. Get a picture frame. Stop ruining my America.
Oh, did we skip February? (See One-armed paperhanger, busier than.) You didn’t miss much. It was a blur of cold and snow, cancelled meetings and anxiety about getting home or getting back. There’s a 225-mile commute involved, and pretty much anything can mess that up, but snow and ice are especially good at it. I’m not sure why the same snow that really has a minimal impact in upstate New York causes absolute CHAOS in southeastern Pennsylvania, but it does. Reinforcing my belief that when we move here permanently, there will be no commute short enough.
But with all that winter behind us (well, not in Albany. Enjoy your 6-to-12!), things are looking better. Been a while since I did one of these, but here’s my current Top Five:
- College admissions! While our younger bit of brilliance was absolutely set on WPI, we did make her apply somewhere else just because, so we’re pleased to say that another PI, this one starting with R, also invites her to bask in its truthiness. One more to hear from, but Worcester already has our money, so that entire process is done.
- Suddenly, Hooverphonic. I was listening to Mazzy Star on Pandora and it got me into a trip-hop groove. (Listen, no one was more surprised than I was.) One of the bands that kept coming up with songs I really liked was Hooverphonic, and then I found they had a recent album recorded live with an orchestra, so I checked that out and OMIGOD. I cannot stop listening to this album. And don’t want to.
- March 10: First official ride of the season. Still snow on the trail, just enough to make some areas a real mess and icy underneath, but the rest was fine. And with the onset of daylight savings, now there’s time at the end of the day to sneak a ride in.
- Spring Classics! More important to me than local signs of spring are the global signs of spring, pro cycling’s spring classics. Daughter came down to our renovation project we call a kitchen the other day, pointed to the laptop on the counter, and asked, “Are you watching bike racing while you’re painting the kitchen? Commented on in a language you don’t speak? DORK!” Yes.
- Speaking of which, during the prologue of Paris-Nice, if you were taking a drink every time the French commentators said “Gianni Meersman,” you were very, very drunk indeed. Seek medical assistance.
- House heartbreak! Well, we’ve already fallen in strong like with a house we could barely afford, and which will be sold out from under us before we are prepared to make a move. Timing a move is a bitch. But, as promised, suitable housing, much of it with electricity and plumbing, is now appearing on the market. The winter offerings were making us think we might be tenting in Valley Forge for a while (which, ironically, is not allowed).
- Stir-fry! Beets, carrots, a little green pepper, tofu, some leaf spinach on top, sesame oil and some asian spices. And peanut butter! Do it.
- Books? God, there is no time to read anything that doesn’t involve electricity and money. But I snuck in a little last month, and have to report that John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars” is the first book to make me cry, ever. And I mean weeping.
- I want an app that identifies the horrible music that is bombarding me at nearly every retail venue I visit, then interacts with aural implants to ensure that I will NEVER hear it again. Let’s call it “Horrify.” I didn’t think it would be possible to miss Muzak, but god it was so much better.
- Hooverphonic. The Last Thing I Need Is You:
There was a time when it was just a foregone conclusion that I’d be a professional writer of some sort. I was always writing something – newspaper articles, wild satires, the kind of feverish nonsense you can only think of when you’re 17, 18, 19. I went to school for it, shaped it, got pretty good at it. I wrote straight news, humor and satire, and even started to work on that novel we all start to work on. I took a couple of semesters of creative writing from a commercially successful writer. I started to think of myself more in terms of story-telling than news reporting.
That old quote: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” So true. The best thing I ever wrote, the piece that actually took people’s breath away when it was read, was basically just a recitation from a low, low point in a relationship. The people who read it were stunned by it, and the person it was about was not, it would be fair to say, pleased. And when I saw the reaction I got by opening that vein, compared to the reaction to other things I wrote where the vein wasn’t even nicked, I realized that in order to be a good writer, I’d have to be willing to tell horrible truths about myself and, more importantly, people I loved. I’d be hurting people, most likely. It wasn’t for me. I picked another path.
But I still have this urge to create. I write quick little history articles. And I tweet dumb things. This week I tweeted a dumb thing that reminded me how much I don’t have the cruelty it would take to be a writer.
The Grammy Awards were this week. I care about them not one whit (except when it’s convenient to do so, such as when they recognize the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s recording at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall for best classical instrumental solo). But millions of people apparently do, and millions of them care who is the Best New Artist, to judge by social media. I’ve already forgotten who won this past week, but I thought I’d poke a little fun with a dumb tweet:
It was just a gentle swipe at the unimportance of the award as a harbinger of talent or a lasting career in the music business. It was a joke. My followers are few, no hashtags were harmed, etc. On to the next dumb tweet.
Except this is the age of teh interbutz, as the kids say, and so a few minutes later, I’m tweeted this:
The Swingle Singers, 1964 Grammy Best New Artist winners (for an unlikely choral arrangement of Bach) tweeted me a winking emoji. The Swingle Singers, who at the time I was four years old were competing in a music industry that did not quite yet include The Beatles, and winning international recognition, tweeted me a wink.
I didn’t mean to insult them. Hopefully the wink means they weren’t insulted. I tweeted back “See! You’re still going strong!” which meant absolutely nothing. They’re not even the original members, and I was still concerned that I had somehow hurt the feelings of a group of people whose name I hadn’t thought about since the Johnson Administration.
So if that’s how I feel about a choral group, what are the chances I could really write about family, friends, people I’ve known? Their stories are fascinating, sometimes heart-wrenching, but I don’t have the heart to tell them.
You know what’s weird? I don’t think I care what either The Starland Vocal Band or A Taste of Honey thinks. But I’ll keep my semi-snarky tweets to myself for a while.
When it comes to my possessions and my ways of doing things, I can be loyal to a fault. I’ve had my commuter bike since 2002, though that’s not old for a bike. Until two weeks ago, both our vehicles were 12 years old. And my personal phone was a Motorola Razr flip phone from 2007. But with the recent announcement that I will be abandoning friends, family, the house in which I reared my children, and several hundred years of family history for nothing more than the pursuit of gainful employment, I’ve decided to give change a good squeeze and go all out. Three weeks ago I went out and bought a brand new car, and last weekend I finally nixed the Razr in favor of an iPhone.
The car is hardly fancy, a brand new Subaru Forester, but ye gods — I got 30.3 miles per gallon on the 4 hour drive down to Philly. I know this because it has about 47 displays dedicated to telling you little else but the gas mileage. But for a good-sized all-wheel drive vehicle (which handles like a dream), that was pretty amazing. I love my Xterra, but I can’t say that I don’t feel the pain when gas prices go up. The Subaru also returns heated seats to my life, a luxury I haven’t had since I turned in my leased Beetle, and heated seats are just a good thing.
It also connects pretty seamlessly with my iPhone. I’m the guy who insisted he really had no use for a smartphone (my previous job supplied me with a Blackberry, which really didn’t qualify as smart, either). I’m also the guy who thinks people should just get a map and know where the hell they’re going. But this morning, as I was bombing down dark country back roads to avoid the highway, I have to admit I was loving having the phone give me directions, through the car’s stereo. I would have been absolutely unable to follow written directions in the dark, with virtually invisible road signs, hidden turns, and fast-moving traffic.
In other weird news, at the ripe old age of halfway to 106, I reported for work in a big city for the first time today. After 24 years of working in a very small city indeed, that was a little surreal.