Top 10, right now

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  1. Herman’s Hermits
    Blaze (Herman's Hermits album)

    Blaze (Herman’s Hermits album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    one of the ’60s British Invasion bands that really didn’t get its due. They had a couple of little inoffensive novelties (“Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter,” “I’m Henry VIII I Am”) that somehow overshadowed what was really a series of masterful pop songs, including the rocking “My Reservation’s Been Confirmed,” “No Milk Today,” and the plaintive, angry, proto-punk “Where Were You When I Needed You.” The album “Blaze” is just a wonder, beginning to end, and should have cemented them as a serious band that was in for the long haul, one that was graduating from covering the songs of others. It didn’t.I don’t know another British Invasion band that has so many songs people just don’t know and should. (The Stool Pigeons’ album of Herman’s Hermits covers is, by the way, fantastic.)

  2. Speaking of Herman’s Hermits covers: The Bangles covered “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which of course wasn’t by anyone in HH, but the songwriting duo of Sloan and Barri.
  3. English: Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Taken b...

    Speaking of The Bangles, where was I when they needed me? Not paying attention to their reunion album from last year, “Sweetheart of the Sun.” I should have been. Heard Susanna Hoffs on the Adam Carolla Show recently, promoting her new solo album. I’ve been a massive fan of her “Under The Covers” albums with Matthew Sweet — under her spell I’ve come to love songs that I have disliked nearly all my life. Turns out Mr. Sweet had a hand in this Bangles album, too, and it’s really quite wonderful. 

  4. Oh, are we just doing music for this Top 10? Okay. Check out Amanda Rogers, whom we’ve seen a couple of times at Troy Night Out. Like lovely, emotional piano and a sweet, strong voice? She’s seriously good. So is her band, The Pleasants.
  5. Another, more local discovery from Troy Night Out: Oobleck. Funky. Possibly non-Newtonian. Check they out.
  6. Speaking of Troy: Design It Together. These guys have turned a process into an art, and an art into a business. Their designs are excellent. I wouldn’t consider a special occasion card from anyone else — especially weddings, anniversaries, or people who need a wonderful image of the Green Island Bridge.
  7. Christopher Moore’s “Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art.” If you hold the Impressionists and their world as sacred, this may not be for you. Or perhaps it is. It’s a romp, like all Christopher Moore books, but it’s an even more entertaining one than usual.
  8. “Canada” by Richard Ford. I’ve only just begun this one, but I was hooked by the end of the first page. For some reason Richard Ford speaks to me, even though he’s writing of people and places that have nothing to do with me. There’s something about the emotional state of his men that fascinates (or perhaps worries).
  9. Like highly embarrassing coming-of-age sort-of teen pregnancy class conflict comedies? Got Hulu? Then I highly recommend “Pramface.” It’s British, of course, because I really don’t think American producers could hit these notes right.
  10. Noise-cancelling headphones. Why have I denied myself this absurdly necessary travel luxury for so long? Thanks to a loving family that takes birthday hints/threats to buy it for myself seriously, I know have a pair and really don’t know how I got by for so long with earbuds gouging my aural canals. you might think they’re mostly good for drowning out the roar of the plane, the rumble of the train, and the screaming of children. And it’s all of those. But I’m especially thankful for their power to completely mask the sound of crashing golf bores detailing their last 37 boozy golf outings, complete with what they think are subtle descriptions of the attractiveness of the brew pub waitresses and hostesses.
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Quonset

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Quonset hut.pngThe war ended nearly, what, 70 years ago? I feel like I could browse through Google Street View safely without running into post-war quonset huts. But no. They are still out there.

They are still out there. And this one appears to be thriving. It may be the nest.

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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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