Map of the World, 1977

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I came across this 1977 map. It’s of Scotia, Schenectady, and Mechanicville. That third one seems a bit odd, but otherwise, as far as I was concerned, it was a map of the world. And most of the world, at least as far as I was concerned, was what is shown right here.

That whole section of the village below Mohawk Avenue down to the river,
I knew so intimately. I knew every house. I knew who lived in most of
them. From various sales activities, back in the days when kids went
door-to-door selling greeting cards, candles, and other tchochkes, I had
knocked on most of those doors. I knew where to go to find horse
chestnuts, which old lady would pay you to clean up all her acorns. I
knew every dog, in a day when almost no dog was leashed. When I go back
to Scotia today, I still remember the houses by who lived in them in the
’60s and ’70s. Every school I went to is on here (except the seventh grade building, the original Scotia HIgh School, closed and perhaps demolished by this time). I set foot in most of those churches at one time or another, too, though I never caught fire in any sense of the word as far as church went. This is truly a map of my world.

It wasn’t quite a case of “beyond here be monsters” — I was no stranger
to the wilds of Schenectady, or the hills of Glenville. But on most
days, most of the time, these little angled grids of streets, a couple
of square miles of homes pushed up against the Mohawk River, represented
everywhere I was likely to go.

The map is odd. It aggressively ignores the numbers of the state
routes that run through the village (5, 50, 147), while naming the
unreachable islands of the river. It announces “APTS” at the east end of
Sanders Avenue, as if apartments were such an odd feature they needed
to be pointed out; they weren’t a big feature in Scotia, but there were
others, and they would hardly rate special mention on a map that didn’t
name churches or most schools.

It would be hard not to note how primitive the cartography is. That wasn’t unusual for the time. It’s single-color printing (oddly, not black). I don’t know the technology used for creating these, but the type looks like some form of letterpress. No key to the symbols is given, but ‘F’ is firehouse, ‘C’ is church, ‘S’ is school and ‘P’ is post office. The ‘8’ was a bit of a mystery, but the index reminds me that it was the Glenville Town Hall, back when it was still in the village. The village’s sole public cemeteries are
marked with what looks more like a telephone pole than a cross, but
then using a cross to designate a cemetery is a bit presumptuous anyway.
Within a few years, much more colorful and better printed maps would start being printed, and the local map company would have to up its game.

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It doesn’t matter if you want it back

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Not enough attention to this blog lately, while Hoxsie gets my love nearly every day! It’s been years since we’ve done a Top 10 of Absolutely Nothing here, so here one is:

  1. “Dear Lemon Lima” – what a sweet little high-school-outcast-makes good movie this was. It was quirky, sweet, kinda real, kinda not.
  2. “Brick” – somehow I had completely missed this one, despite my natural acceptance of all things Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and all things noir. Film noir set in a modern high school. “She knows where I eat lunch.”
  3. Amanda Palmer’s “Theatre is Evil.” Well, soon, anyway. I backed the Kickstarter and got the fabulous CD and bonus tracks and all, but am not sure my head is in the space for what she’s singing about just at the moment, so I’ve only listened to the tracks that I had already heard, and even that is a bit much for the moment. “It doesn’t matter that you want it back / You’ve given it away / You’ve given it away.” Fabulous naked video here.
  4. Fresh electricity – 21 years ago I bought a house with somewhat substandard electric service and a scary tangle of wires stapled to a sloppily painted chunk of board in the basement. It didn’t magically get better with time. Work on the house finally forced me to call an electrician to clean up the mess down there, and a fine job they did. Cleaned up a lot of the mess, pulled all kinds of dead wires, gave me shiny new plastic-covered wire outside the house (because cloth-covered wire is just gauche). And now I have a circuit breaker box I feel safe working in.
  5. Awesome new tools. Where do I apply to get back the years of my life that I wasted with poor, ancient hand-me-downs that simply didn’t do the job? How did I get by doing occasional framing work all these years without a laser-guided chop saw? Why did I continue to try to cut with my grandfather’s circular saw, which clearly wasn’t up to the task? And why did I not understand that a Milwaukee hammer-drill is just about the finest cordless drill for everyday use I could want? They just make every single task easier, WAY easier. If a poor carpenter blames his tools, does a good one praise them? I don’t know, but my work is much better for having these new wonders.
  6. Creative vegetables. It was our first season with a CSA (community sustainable agriculture) share. Even at a half-share, it was a struggle to keep up with all the food each week. What do we do with all this kale? And tomatillos? And all these tomatoes? We’re not canners, but we did discover the joys of dehydrating, as well as inventing dozens of new combinations of hot and cold mixed vegetable dishes. Also rediscovered beets. Now, seriously, what was I thinking not eating beets all these years? So much flavor.
  7. Missing the daughter who’s away at college, especially now that the days are shortening and I think of those quick suppers we had together in the kitchen on nights when it was just the two of us, or our little breakfast rituals in the dark mornings. So excited for her, so thrilled that she’s doing so well, and that she goes to the kind of college that has a major career fair just for summer jobs (my day, my school, that did not exist). But missing her nonetheless.
  8. Enjoying the hell out of the daughter who’s still at home. Love coming home to catch her practicing piano, unbidden, and listening to her sort out compositions. She’d rather we weren’t around to hear it, and I enjoy hearing every note. We’re sorting through the college search process now, which is daunting and exciting as we watch another one who can pretty much do whatever she wants, will get into one of the top schools for what she wants, and will have an amazing college career.
  9. Leg bands. This is really a bottom ten, not a top ten. But god, why do bicycle leg bands not work on my pants? Having had several failures, I tried a nice expensive rubber-backed Planet Bike band that is not only reflective, it lights up. Should be amazing. Would be amazing, IF the elastic didn’t keep sliding back in the clip, and if it would stay up on my leg and hold my pant leg in place. It won’t. Going to a full gaiter on one leg, one step removed from spats, just seems like one more thing to manage on a bike commute that is already a disproportionate pain in the ass. I think I’ve decided to just completely give up on purpose-built devices and just use binder clips, which seem to never fail.
  10. I’ve rediscovered my intended epitaph: “I yield to myself as much time as I may consume.”

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How this all got out of hand

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It all started so innocently. After 80 years and several
rehabs, it was time for our glassed-in porch, with its wood-on-wood sliding
windows and door that wouldn’t fully open, to be replaced. There was simply no
fixing it back up anymore. We had a brief fling with the idea of making it a
proper addition, a bit bigger and hiding a half-bathroom. The estimates (the
ones we could get, that is . . . good times or bad, contractors don’t seem to
want my money) came in at about a third of the value of the house . . . way too
much to put into a place in our neighborhood. So back to square 1.5, which was
replace the walls, windows and door on the porch, ourselves.

So here’s how it starts to get out of hand. This is my one
chance to insulate the porch, something I should certainly do to justify the
fancy new windows, and make it a good 3-1/2 season room. And that meant
crawling underneath, insulating the joists and sealing it up. And if I do that,
I have to insulate the ceiling, which means pulling down the old
tongue-and-groove ceiling that we love, and realizing that it really needs to
be refinished, so that’s 76 pieces of t&g that needs sanding and staining. Oh,
it’s also my one chance to spread some electricity around the porch, and get
light from something other than a centered fan, so let’s run some wiring,
outlets all over, two new sconces, a ceiling light, a new fan. And power for a
closet that we haven’t designed yet. And if we want to get the most use out of
it, wouldn’t a little space-heater make more sense than trying to get ductwork
out there? And when I get to the flooring, just putting it down over the old
stuff won’t work, so let’s cut a new subfloor layer.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of siding. The house
has 50-year-old asbestos siding, which lasts forever, insulates beautifully, is
easy to paint and nearly impossible to get rid of. But it’s getting brittle, it’s
hard to repair, it hurts the value of the house, and I’ll have to put something
else on the new porch, so let’s just get new siding at last. Well, if we’re
going to do that, that’s the time to replace the kitchen windows, which take up
too much wall space and ruin the layout.

Oh, and I’ll need to repair a couple of pieces of garage
wall before it’s sided. And replace a window that was never really a window
(just a tacked-on aluminum storm window). And repair the rotting roof deck at
the eaves.

Oh, and after the workers yank off all the old siding, I’ll
notice exposed wire on the electric service to the house, and decide that now
is also the time when I need to finally replace the old cloth-wrapped wire on
the electric service, get a new meter box, and get a new desperately needed
circuit breaker box. For that, for the siding removal, and for the new siding, I’ve turned to contractors. Otherwise, the pain is all mine.

Sometime soon it’ll all be done. Well, not the inside of the
porch, that’ll be another few months, but all the noticeable stuff from
outside. It’ll all look sensational, like a real house. And I will be, as I am
now, absolutely and utterly exhausted.

“There is no tragedy like this under the sky”

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There is a popular and often-repeated notion that romantic love is a modern invention of the Western world. Writer after writer will explain to us that only in the last couple of hundred years have we had this idea of being totally devoted to another human being; before that it was all practicality and contracts. It’s a cynical view that ignores  thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. So how, then to explain this: an incredible letter found on the chest of a mummified man in South Korea. Written in 1586, the letter is a heartwrenching plea from his pregnant widow, trying desperately to understand how to go on without him.

“How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you?
Whenever we lay down together you always told me, ‘Dear, do other people
cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?’ How
could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me? . . .

“When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can
anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.”

To read the full letter, go to the amazing site Letters of Note. And then tell me love is a modern, Western invention.

Not The Summer of Fun

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This was, unfortunately, not The Summer of Fun. It started
with such promise – my wife was through her cancer treatments, we were getting
out on the bikes together, the weather was dry and warm. But then began the
home improvement project, the crazy idea to replace a 72-year-old porch, which
started simply and grew and grew, and started taking up every free moment. I’m
currently working on sanding and staining the 76 pieces of tongue and groove
that made up the ceiling. It’s that kind of project. Biking got reduced to what
I do to commute every day, which ain’t much. The longer days in the saddle just
had to take a back seat to getting this project done.

There was also the matter of coordinating an office move at
work, dealing with vendors, getting quotes and approvals and so on, in addition
to the normal travel schedule. We didn’t get to the ballet, or a single concert; there was no Park Playhouse or fireworks.

On the theory that if I wasn’t having a summer of fun, no
one would, younger daughter was packed off to a series of “camps” – if you can
call intensive educational experiences full of kids way brighter than I am “camps”
– which took up travel days and left us with an empty nest for a chunk of the
summer. Older daughter lived away for the summer, having a job and being all
responsible and grown up, and probably doing things that I don’t even want to
know about while living in squalor.  And
then there was a family tragedy that just hurts too much to think about and has
definitely cast a pall over the remaining days of August.

On the other hand, we did have a wonderful family vacation
all together in Burlington. We found a favorite new place for ice cream, Mac’s
in Watervliet. The canoes and kayak were fairly well used. There was Frisbee.
There was lots of ukulele. Wife and I snuck off to DC together and had dinner
with old friends, and later hosted other old friends who were traveling
through Albany. I had lunch in the park with my insanely grown-up daughter. I
have repeatedly caught the other one practicing piano without provocation.  I bought a wicked sexy new circular saw.  And I think I even started to get used to the
heat.

So while it wasn’t The Summer of Fun, it wasn’t The Summer
of No Fun.

What I learned on my summer vacation

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Lake Champlain.jpgThey say travel broadens the mind until you can’t get your head out of doors. (“They” in this case being Elvis Costello, but you get my point.) I’m not a world traveler but even a brief sojourn to a place not so far away can prove to be a much-needed tonic, and can set my mind to thinking about what it would take for the place I live to be as enjoyable as the place I was visiting. In this case, we spent a week in Burlington, Vermont, at the city’s campground and beach on the shores of Lake Champlain. It’s a short stroll to the beach, an easy (and popular) bike ride into town, and there’s barely any need to get into a car for the week.

Burlington always seems like a bit of a paradise. It’s a very small city (less than half the population of Albany) with a strong local economy, a bustling downtown, a good arts scene, a strong connection with its college population. It’s a city that invests in its infrastructure and understands that the waterfront, extensive bike paths, and boating access draw visitors and keep things going. There also seems to be a culture of politeness and order, where cars actually stop for pedestrians in crosswalks and wave bikes through, and where old ladies are unafraid to ride their bikes on major roads.

Here are the things I found most enjoyable in Burlington and can’t understand why we can’t have in Albany:

  • Cars and bikes, getting along. There are LOTS of bikes in Burlington. Lots. What makes it so bikeable? Yes, there are some good paths and lots of places to lock up, but ultimately what makes a city bikeable is that it is safe to bike. There aren’t a lot of dedicated bike lanes there. It just seemed that drivers, many of whom must also bike, were not just tolerant of bikes, but actually pleasant toward them. In addition, cyclists seemed to do their part — I saw a lot of predictable riding, obeying signals, staying on the proper side of the road.
  • Glass on the roadside. I saw none. Well, there was one unsmashed airplane vodka bottle, which I kicked into the gutter as I rode by. Otherwise, I didn’t see a single instance of broken glass. Riding almost anywhere in the Capital District, you’re guaranteed to find the roadside strewn with glass. I also found Cleveland to be glass-free, and parts of Delaware, and parts of Pennsylvania . . . in fact, I’m starting to believe that it’s only around here that riding over glass is a constant hazard. Either people in other places aren’t tossing bottles out their windows (in my experience, at cyclists) as often, or someone is cleaning it up, or both. In either case, it’s both nice to know that a glass-free life is possible, and depressing to find that we’re pigs around here.
  • When people step into crosswalks, drivers stop. In fact, drivers often stop even before you’re in the crosswalk, or before you’re even ready to cross the street. It got a little annoying, though not nearly as annoying as standing in the middle of North Pearl Street, pointing at the “Stop for Pedestrians” sign in the middle of the street, and having drivers completely ignore you and/or try to hit you. Seriously: just because you’re in a car doesn’t mean you’re more important, in more of a hurry, or anything else. Why does no one consider that sometimes they’re pedestrians who would like to cross the street, too? I think it has to do with suburbanization and the cultural loss of the need to parallel park or walk more than 15 feet to anything.
  • There was a huge athletic community. I saw more runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and everything else in twenty minutes on the bike path there than I would see sitting all day at the Corning Preserve. No exaggeration. I know that our area is vastly more spread out (which is of course part of the problem), but it is not possible to visit Burlington without thinking that it’s a place where athletes are welcome and encouraged. And by athlete, I mean anyone who was out there doing it; it wasn’t all or even mostly skinny people with Gu bottles hanging from their belts — there were plenty of people who wouldn’t fit the stereotype who were out there getting it done. And ultimately, that’s what happens when you encourage athletics — people who don’t think of themselves as athletes give it a try, and keep at it, and ultimately they’re healthier, and that’s better for society. I feel like in Albany there are a couple of events where big groups come together, and then they all go back to wherever it is they run or bike or whatever the rest of the year.

Could we have these things in Albany? I just can’t see why not.

A poor carpenter also praises his tools

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Let me add to the list of new tools that are making my home improvement project so much easier the simple expedient of a new lightweight, high-powered Milwaukee circular saw. After just a couple of days of working with this modern marvel, I want to get into a time machine, go back 20 years and beat myself for the next 20 years for holding onto and using my father’s and grandfather’s 1960s vintage circular saws. WHAT WAS I THINKING? This baby cuts through OSB like butter. Butter! If you could cut butter and leave a clean, straight edge without that initial drift that I had just accepted as part of the process. Power, weight, accuracy, ease of adjustment: let’s be clear, I have wasted days, perhaps weeks of my life struggling with those old saws when I could have had something better all this time. As Tom & Ray always said, it’s the stingy man who spends the most.

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Far from the nucleus

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For the first time in the just shy of 16 years that there
have been four of us, tonight all four of us will be sleeping under different
roofs, in different cities. It’s a very strange feeling. Elder daughter is
having what I hope is that magical summer after freshman year. It seems to
involve plastic flamingos and complaining about housemates who don’t clean, so
it sounds perfect. She’s not far away, but she’s not at home. Younger daughter
is off at smartycamp, though it turns out to be supersmartycamp, where young
men and women who are super-serious about becoming doctors are doing things
like watching knee replacement surgeries, touring hospitals, and discussing
medical ethics. This may put ideas in her head. I’ll be laying my idea-free head
down in the rough vicinity of Valley Forge, which suddenly is becoming another
of my haunts, though the actual name of the town I’m staying in is never
abundantly clear. And lovely wife will be holding down the fort, which these days
means reattaching the plastic wrap to the porch reconstruction project after
every windstorm. So this is how we end up scattered to the winds.

Remember that first summer away? I had a summer job on the
college paper that paid $75 a week for 10 or 12 weeks, and that was plenty to
live on. A small crew of us put it out every week, doing absolutely everything:
writing, photographing, editing, laying out, pasting up, and delivering. It
took about 3-1/2 days out of the week. The other 3-1/2 days were spent in a
lazy summer haze. I rode my bike and wore out a pair of flip-flops. I
discovered the city pools and parks. After an awful week rooming in the
basement of a frat house, I found a beautiful sublet well away from campus with
a lovely porch, one roommate who was indifferent to me, and one who couldn’t
stand me. I scoured garage sales for old vinyl, spent hours and hours writing
letters and ridiculous short stories, picked away at a guitar. We “borrowed”
the paper’s van and went out every weekend to see Next of Kin, playing, most
often, at the local Ground Round. I hid from the summer heat in cool darkrooms
and pretended I was a photographer. I discovered Jefferson Airplane and the
Animals. I drank too much sometimes but it wasn’t yet the problem it would
become, and that summer everything seemed to be in perfect balance. On top of
it all was the easy atmosphere of a college campus in summer, where no one’s in
too much of a hurry, things are relaxed, and you feel that by being there you
own the place more than the kids who come and go with every semester. So I’m
hoping the elder one is having that kind of summer.

For that matter, remember that first time going away without your parents? I had several opportunities like that, but the biggest one was essentially a journalism camp held at what would become my college, the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Two weeks away with other kids from all over the state and the country, all in some way into the same interests. It was so exciting . . . in the same day I heard my first authentic Long Island and Texas accents. We worked like dogs putting together a newspaper and a yearbook for the program. We learned writing, composing, and photography. We pulled all-nighters. We listened to “Hotel California” a lot. The thrill of finding others who were in some way like me, of opening up, discovering. It’s all so new and wonderful at that age, and I’m so glad the younger one gets to experience it this summer.

Other than that, for the parents, it’s a routine week. I try to understand electricity, and Lee comes home from work to put the saran wrap back up on the porch project I left behind.

 

A father’s legacy

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379369727_c28991d7bd_z.jpgI don’t seem to be able to think of my father at the
socially prescribed times, like his birthday or the anniversary of his death,
but Father’s Day is coming up and that has me thinking about my own legacy as a
father, and that makes me think of his as well. As the kids say, it’s
complicated.

He was a good man, and not a terribly good one. He was
generous to a fault, and wasted much of his life in bars. He knew how to build
things but lacked patience. He was inarticulate, uneducated, and embarrassed
about it, and he was massively proud that I turned out differently. He’s been
gone longer than I knew him, but even at the time he died I felt like I had an
incomplete picture of him, and not nearly enough memories.

What was expected of fathers started to change in the ’60s
and ’70s, when I was growing up, and so it’s fair to say that the transition
was confusing for many men. For a long time I just accepted that that was how
it was, and he definitely did come from a different time. He was one of ten
kids in a family where the father, 50 years old when my dad was born, was often
working in a distant city. There wasn’t a lot of father-son bonding. Or any, as
far as I know. So to my father, the amount of time we spent together probably
felt extravagant. But for the most part, it wasn’t time together; it was time
when he needed to go somewhere, and I’d come along. Mostly where he needed to
go was bars, the old dank neighborhood bars that barely exist anymore.
Sometimes there were other places: auto repair shops, the lumber yard, the
barber shop. We fished together a couple of times, and two or three times he drove
us on my scout troop’s annual trip to Lake Placid, but otherwise he wasn’t
there. It was up to someone else’s father to perfect my Frisbee throw or to
give me my first good fishing reel.

It seemed perfectly normal to me then, something any kid
might do, to accompany my father into bars and wait while he drank. These were
all places that knew him, where he knew everyone, and he was welcomed and
greeted. I learned later that a barfly’s welcome isn’t worth much: when he
died, people I thought were his friends couldn’t rouse themselves to come to
the funeral, but instead waved at the procession as we drove past the tavern.
But to him, these were his favorite places, and he probably felt sharing it
with me was a good thing. I’d get dimes or quarters to play the jukebox and the
bowling machine, I’d get the tiny glass of soda mixed with grenadine
embarrassingly and unfailingly called a Shirley Temple, and a bag of Wise potato
chips or Slim Jims. And then I’d just sit and wait and watch him leaning
against the bar, chatting with the other drunk men about nothing whatsoever.
And somehow I believed it was perfectly normal, despite the fact that I rarely,
if ever, saw another boy in those places.

My strongest memories of him are the smells: the powerful
mix of diesel and cigarettes that clung to his work clothes, the whiskey and
beer on his breath at the end of absolutely every single day, the pungent cool
smell of stale beer soaked into the floorboards of ancient taverns. Images of
him are harder to find (and actual photographs, in a family that viewed film as
an exotic and unjustifiable expense, harder still), but to this day if I smell
rotting lettuce, which he often reeked of after a day of hauling produce for
Central Markets, I instantly think of my father.

He was sweet in many ways. He tried to be interested in the
things that interested me, and was always polite and kind to my friends. He
adored my wife and insisted she would have a wedding ring even though we were
too progressive to believe in such things. He was supremely willing to help
when help was needed.

He was stupidly young when he died, 48, and he died because
he drank and smoked, especially smoked, despite very bad asthma and a lot of
signs from his body that maybe it was time to straighten up. He didn’t. A few
years ago I found myself at his grave in rageful tears, so angry that he wasn’t
here to see his grand-daughters, and it was entirely his doing.

And so I think about the legacy, the memories my girls will
have of me. I lived nearly 18 years with my father, he died when I was almost
25, and as I said, even then my memories were scant. I have tried, not always
with success, to be present, to be there when I’m there, and not to be
distracted by the electronics and things that make it easy to divert our
attention. We have done a tremendous amount of things together, close to home,
around the state and even a bit beyond, and each one seems to elicit a very
specific memory for them, and I just hope those memories remain. I was blessed
with a period of time when I was home nearly every day, and we learned to cook
and bake together, to dance around the kitchen, and to just enjoy each other.
I’m touched beyond belief when my older daughter texts me with a question she
could easily have Googled, and when she thanks me for teaching her to solder
and how to wash dishes. I’m touched beyond belief when my younger daughter
squees with excitement that we’ll be returning to a campground we visited many
times when she was young and fell out of using, because I know her experience
of that place, and our being there together will always be with her.