Category Archives: blather

Seen from the train, No. 1

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Generally, I would say that Newark, New Jersey is best seen from the train. Securely wrapped in steel and moving right along. I’ve seen it the other way, too, and prefer the rails. But sometimes as I’m speeding through I see something I’d love to see better, and this building is one of them. It looks much larger than it appears in Street View, and much more imposing. For a long time, I don’t know if it was an old factory, an old school . . . perhaps a factory school. Either way, I thought it was lovely and severe at the same time, and has a quality that modern architecture never does.

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A quick look around the corner reveals that it’s the Murphy Varnish Company. I hope they were proud.

Update: Turns out it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, too.

The flood this time

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What is there to say about what’s been going on in this corner of the world since tropical storm Irene started a dump of rain that has barely let up for a day since? Yesterday was another day of that mounting sinking feeling, compounded by being away and worried that I wouldn’t be able to get home. There was also substantial flooding down where I was, with delays and backups all over the place, and as I watched news feeds and Facebook and saw the bridge closings and evacuations up here all over again, it became hard to pay attention to anything other than whether I was going to have to get reacquainted with the Greyhound schedule in order to get home. In the end things were okay, a little delayed but the tracks didn’t go underwater.

Stunning to me is the damage to the Barge Canal. Infrastructure that has survived a hundred years has been damaged or destroyed in a system that was held together mostly by bobby pins and the good will and ingenuity of the people who run it. Underfunded and misunderstood, I can only hope that this is an opportunity for the Canal, that its importance will be recognized and its transformation from pure transportation to a phenomenal recreational resource will finally be understood. But it looks like it will be out of commission for the year, and some locks, bridges and dams may be seriously compromised.

The end of the summer

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There really couldn’t have been a better way to wrap up a summer, much as I would like it not to end. Went from too much free time in the last few summers to not nearly enough in this one, with a lot of travel and and a very slowly healing ileotibilial band. So when friends were gathering in one place and family was gathering in another, the bike had to be ridden to one or the other. Picked the first but decided to take the shorter route with the much steeper climb two-thirds through. I raced the BusPlus on the nice fresh pavement from the Capitol into Schenectady, where I left it in my dust. Took a couple of breaks to look at flood damage along the way through Scotia, and then had to hit the hill. Up Waters Road because I’ve done it before, but apparently amnesia set in and I didn’t remember there was a hump in the middle, which amounts to wasted climbing that I started to think I didn’t have my legs.  Had a few minutes of bonk as the computer showed my speed in the single digits, and not some of the higher ones. But once I was up and over it, the last 15k or so were fine.

So a lazy, hazy day with old friends, the kind we see once a year but think of all the time, then a drive over to family to celebrate with a three-year-old who was much more interested in cake than presents, and back across the river again for a campfire and smores. A campfire and smores! What could be more fun? Well, perhaps singing along to Beatles and McCartney songs all the way home. All together, couldn’t have been a nicer time.

Love living in a region of rivers, but the post-Irene destruction really gave me a new appreciation for, and concern for, bridges. They were closing left and right last Monday, to protect from runaway barges, potential scouring, who knows what else. Yesterday, I crossed the Mohawk and Hudson 7 times in our running around. Miraculously, only one of the bridges, in Rotterdam Junction, is closed. The flooding has receded, leaving everything coated in clay and endless debris and very strong currents, so it may be a while before we can put the boats in again.

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Advice for parents of college freshmen

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A lot of us are sending our kids off to college for the
first time. It’s stressful and exciting all at once, and I think if we just
remember some of what we learned when we went off to school, it can really make
things easier. So here are a few tips:

  • Make sure your student knows how to dial long-distance. If
    they haven’t done it often, it can be confusing. Since direct-dialing means
    sitting in the phone booth with a pile of dimes, it’s best to just show him or
    her how to make an operator-assisted collect call. Yes, collect calls cost more,
    especially if they’re person-to-person, so tell her to make it a
    station-to-station call.
  • When calling your student, understand that he won’t always
    remember to be by the hall phone at the appointed time, or there may be another
    student using the phone. If another student answers, make sure you have your
    student’s room number so the hallmate can easily check if they’re in. If not,
    just ask them to leave a short message on the dry erase board.
  • Mail time is the biggest moment of every student’s day. Even
    a short letter from friends and family is a great way to stay in touch. Every
    now and then, send a sheet of stamps so your student doesn’t run out. If your
    student is particularly homesick, consider a mail subscription to the local
    newspaper – it’ll bring a touch of home into her mailbox every day!
  • Money is always in short supply for students. If your
    student is close by, she may be able to keep a bank account with her home bank,
    but if she’s going across state or out of state, she’ll need a new bank. If
    you’re sending checks, remember they can take a week to 10 days to clear.
  • Care packages are great, but don’t limit yourself to cookies
    and Rice Krispie squares. Kids also need fresh typewriter ribbons and
    Ko-Rec-Type. I know that as a student, I never had enough Ko-Rec-Type, and it’s

Things we learned in Old Forge this year

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Old Forge Hardware Store

  1. There is a gang of mallards that is out to steal from us, and perhaps kill us. They are The Jets, and they are everywhere. We have been stalked, shadowed, harassed and jimmy-jacked (pathwise) by this murderous flock of fowl.
  2. Deer count: way down. Only in the 30s instead of the hundreds, though one of them was so bold that keeping it out of our shelter was almost impossible. (Then it treated us to a display of its ability to keep its own behind clean. Impressive!)
  3. When people are awakened by a bear in their tent, they scream really loud. It sounds nothing like “whoa, bear.”
  4. Mountainman has some paddles that are outrageously sexy, including a canoe paddle that weighs about as much as a marshmallow. We settled for a kayak paddle that weighs about as much as a peanut butter sandwich. And two PFDs. And some water shoes. And a new Camelbak. And some other stuff. . . .
  5. We invented three brilliant new foods: Coffee-flavored Nilla Wafers; coffee-flavored cranberries; coffee-flavored banana chips. Just store ground coffee in a ziploc bag next to a ziploc bag of the other ingredient, and voila!
  6. There is absolutely nothing funny about the name of local electrical contractor BJ Queen. Not even when it’s plastered on any number of passing panel trucks. No even when you’re traveling with teenagers.
  7. We’re going to start a real estate company. We will sell inexpensive vacation homes in the Adirondacks that will happen, for reasons of expense, to be built in drainage ditches. We will call it Last Ditch Real Estate.

The past will never end

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There was a blogging flurry (a “blurry,” if you will) last
week over another study, asking whether the always-on, everywhere internet is
making us dumber, or at least affecting our memories. And it’s true, I no
longer need to remember that the bushy-browed professor in “Ball of Fire” was
played by Oskar Homolka – IMDB takes care of that for me. And I don’t see that
as a bad thing, because that was the kind of information I never really needed,
but for some reason felt compelled to maintain, even though it took up space
that probably should have gone to remembering my wedding anniversary or my
mother’s birthday. (And yet, not everything has changed, ’cause it didn’t take
me a google to come up with Oskar’s name.) So maybe we remember less because we
can now get information in a second, and maybe that’s okay. (Although I’d like
to be able to come up with a mental construct that describes electrical
reactive power without having to fly to Wikipedia every time.)

But what is being lost is the nagging mystery, the curious
question that sticks in your mind for months or even years, perhaps being
resolved by chance, perhaps never being resolved at all. It used to happen all
the time . . . you might see a sign on the street, or pass by a building with
odd initials and wonder what it could mean. You might see a forgotten symbol
and file it away under the things you wanted to figure out the meaning of
someday. You might encounter an untranslatable phrase and stick it in the back
of your mind until you hit the right book or old professor who could tell you
what it all meant.

And it hasn’t even been all that long. It took me years
(years!) before I solved the mystery of the name of the movie “Repeat Performance,”
a barely remembered bit of late-night black-and-white fluff that I only
remembered for its portrayal of a poet whose patroness had promised him a
volume bound with morrocoed endpapers. But as the depth of the archived
material on the internet grows, as search goes deeper and deeper into connected
storage, it’s only a matter of time before that search, like so many others,
takes me seconds. When I publish a snippet on Hoxsie, I routinely look up the
names of the people in the ads or articles from the 19th century,
and more often than not I find out something else about them. It’s probably
easier for me to learn the history of Moses Jones, practical slater, here in
2011 than it would have been when he was roofing St. Joseph’s Church back in the
1850s. That’s just fundamentally strange, and an altogether new condition of
the modern world, yet we’ve come to accept it as normal in a very short time.

As I rode the train past Philadelphia the other day, I gazed
out the window and saw an odd sign along the tracks: “Rule 292 / Stop / Here.” In
any other day and age, I’d have been amused, wondering how I would know if Rule
292 applied to me or not, hoping that the people who really needed to know
would know. But now I was able to figure it out before the train got to the
next station. Takes all the mystery out of life.

What I don’t miss about TV

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I will never be one of those annoying snobs who doesn’t have a TV, and needs to be sure you know it. Or, an even worse bore, someone who does have one but forbids their children to watch it. Listen, my kids have learned very important lessons from television — not just some seriously interesting things about the scientific method, quantum physics and time, but also that guys running around without shirts on are generally to be avoided (see any episode of “Cops.” Or “Campus P.D.” for that matter).

I have enjoyed, even loved TV since I was old enough to be babysat by it. But the advent of the DVR taught me I should only watch what I want, when I want (“no flipping,” as Larry Sanders would have said), and an extended battle with my cable company led me to conclude that I was paying a lot of money to bring crap into my home that I didn’t want there, just in the hope that something good would come along once or twice a day. So we cut the cable and went with the internet model, using Hulu and Netflix to get most of our TV doses, with the promise of some iTunes subscriptions and the occasional highly necessary cycling package to fill in the gaps. And I could hardly be happier. So here’s what I don’t miss:

  • Constant banners, pop-ups, promos and other distractions. Over the past few years, nearly all the channels have decided that a) whatever they’re showing right now isn’t any good, but something better will be showing later on; b) the audience is made up of jittery monkeys who won’t watch the screen unless something flashy is happening. I couldn’t be more annoyed by the constant banners, logos, pop-ups (some with sound!) that played OVER what I was trying to watch. It’s the channel saying, “Sorry, this is some shitty programming we don’t believe in, but boy have we got something for you later on!” Which they will interrupt with banners, logos and pop-ups blocking the show they promised would be worth watching. They have no faith that what they’re presenting will keep me interested. Generally, all the buzzing just made me change the channel no matter how much I wanted to watch something; I’d go find it on DVD or streaming so I could watch it without distractions.
  • Reality TV. It started so innocently, with “Survivor” and then maybe “Amazing Race,” a nice mix of real-ish people in extreme situations that made for entertaining television. “The Real World” started out that way, except that the extreme situation was communal living and free booze. Then they hit on “The Osbornes,” which flipped the paradigm to un-real people in non-extreme situations, and it was a rapid downhill slide. Don’t watch it, you say? Yes, agreed, but my not watching it didn’t keep it from permeating the culture, from being advertised every minute and talked about on other TV shows during every minute it wasn’t advertised. Without cable, I’m living an existence of willful ignorance of all things Kardashian; I can’t even learn things I don’t want to know accidentally, and believe me it just makes me a happier person. 
  • Waiting for cancellation. Because scripted TV just can’t attract an audience these days, the few shows that I’ve tried to give a shot to have died on the vine. Sometimes they’re gone before I can even start to watch them. It’s hard to commit to a storyline that you know is likely to go away by the fourth episode. I used to say that I was into bands from the ’60s because they had already broken up, and couldn’t disappoint me (at the time, I didn’t know about the state fair reunion tour circuit). I don’t know how this model can work to produce quality programming, but now we take the time to dip into a series in little bursts. We’ll watch a few weeks of “Buffy,” then “Ally McBeal.” Suddenly we’re deep into “Doctor Who.” We know the end already came, and we’re dealing with a defined universe of shows, and that’s okay. (Wasn’t the original “Twin Peaks” supposed to be just a few episodes, and wouldn’t it have been endlessly better if it had stayed that way?)

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  • Once again, summer feels like it’s over before it’s even begun. In a whirl of travel, end-of-the-school-year events and rain, I’ve missed the lengthening of days (or feel like I have), and it’s only downhill from here. There will be camping but not much of it, and if it doesn’t stop pouring our only canoeing may have been in April.
  • My incredible string of good fortune in the health arena continues (coming, I must say, after a very sickly childhood, so I feel like I’m owed). After months of inadequate healing, swelling and general pain in my knee, I finally took it to a surgeon, who took one look at it and, despite being a surgeon, had no interest in cutting it open. Told me to keep doing what I was doing and it would get better. And he was right, it has. Quite extraordinary, though, since I presume that surgeons are pretty much like beavers — always gonna see the need for a dam.
  • Life without cable (or any broadcast TV, for that matter) is going pretty swimmingly. The Playstation seems to want to be restarted every couple of times before it’ll give me Netflix, but in general I’m enjoying a much more conscious choosing of my entertainment. (And, in particular, Rebekah’s having introduced us to Doctor Who, which I could never previously get into but which we’re now completely hooked on. The David Tennant episodes, at least.) Also, despite my trepidations, NBC Universal’s on-line Tour de France package is working spectacularly well, with flawless streaming, very high-def pictures (we could read the washing instructions on Thor’s shorts), ability to slide up and down the timestream without causing streaming panic, and no commercials, stupid promotions or anything else that detracts from the perfection that is the Tour. So, highly recommended.
  • Light riding, again because of the awayness, the raininess, and the desire to get out with Rebekah as she’s starting to enjoy road biking. Hard to beat that feeling of effortless riding that comes with a road bike.
  • Took in fireworks in Scotia, having found a fantastic location for viewing them. The little village gets hella-crowded for the fireworks, and the general tenor of drunken crowds doesn’t sit well with me, but I still feel it’s my duty as a parent to get my kids to fireworks at least once a summer, and that’s the surest place for me to do it. Absolutely nothing could ever convince me to try to see the fireworks at the Empire State Plaza again — it’s the most horrible place in the world to put on a fireworks show. A select couple of thousand people get a good view, and the rest of the world tries to see through the surrounding buildings. It’s insane, and I can’t understand why anyone goes.

Welcome to the Hotel Rantifornia

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I’ve been traveling with some regularity for some twenty
years now, and there are a couple of things that hotels just can’t seem to get
right, and they’re the simplest things in the world, so I’d like to see some
effort made to fix them. Two simple things and I’ll feel like we’ve made some
progress as a civilization.

First, hotels of America, make your internet access
wireless, truly high-speed and high bandwidth, and free. And by “free,” I mean
stop trying to make it a super-rich profit center, build it into the cost of
every room, and think of it as being as basic as having a bed in the room (and
I’m talking to you, DoubleTree, which recently gave me a room without a bed). Nearly
every traveler  today relies on internet
access, and if you don’t give it to us, we’ll just do it through our phones and
remember that you made it an expensive pain in the ass. Still feel the need to
charge me $10 a night for something I can get free in almost any coffee shop?
Fine, then give me a rebate of the same amount for the cable bill, because you’re
pumping 40 or 50 channels into my room and I never, ever turn the TV on. Then we can
call it even.

Second, and maybe even more important, turning on the lights
should not be like solving a tavern puzzle. Every single hotel room I go into is
set up differently, and it’s annoying every time. Some of the lights (and it’s
impossible to predict which ones) are on a wall switch. Others have a switch
somewhere on the base of the lamp. Some others you’ve got to find the turnkey
in the socket. Some of them have the switch in the cord. This week’s stay, I
had two seemingly identical lamps on either side of the bed. They looked
exactly the same. But one had a switch in the base, and the other one had it up
in the bulb socket. That’s just fucking with me, and you need to cut it out. It’s
insane. If I could get back all the time I’ve lost figuring out how to turn on
lights, added to the time I’ve spent figuring out whether to pull on the paper
towels or wave my hands at the soap dispenser, and I’d have at least an extra couple
of months to tack onto my life. But this shouldn’t be hard. If the switch is
going to be on the base, then it should be on the base of every lamp in the
room. If it’s going to be an inline switch that you then tuck behind the desk
and bed so I can’t find it at all, fine, but do it for every goddamn lamp so I
know what to expect. You want me to clap to turn them on, fine, but can’t they all
be on the clapper? You spend millions laying out these rooms. Some designer reject
from a Bravo reality show spends weeks poring over lamp designs to find just
the right one, and then he or she or whatever says, “Order 400,000 of these desk lamps, but make the switches on every
one of them in a different place.” You’re wasting my life and grinding
civilization to a halt and you need to cut it the fuck out.

You know, I thought I was more annoyed by the internet
thing. Apparently not!


Fallout Shelters

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Fallout shelter in basement I’ve written before about the wonders of the fallout shelter, and how they’ve all disappeared. Well, there’s a marvelous history of the fallout shelter program here. Duck and cover!