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.

The curse of home repair

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I’m never sure whether to thank or curse my father for whatever he taught me about carpentry. My mother’s father and grandfather were carpenters, my father was a carpenter for a period of time, and all through my life, if something needed doing on the house, we did it ourselves. So I’m cursed with just enough knowledge to believe I can do almost anything myself (except I know I’m bad with concrete), just enough skill to get by (though in my sixth decade, I’m almost good at it), and a hatred of paying contractors outrageous rates to do something I can do myself. So when estimates for replacing our 72-year-old porch came in somewhere in the stratosphere, my wife asked, “Well, can you do this?” Uh, yeah. Sorta.

The challenge with house carpentry is that if you don’t do it all the time, you don’t really know how to do it. You just know how to figure it out. Figuring it out takes a lot longer. And because it’s my house, and my yard, I’m way more careful about the demolition part, especially the millions of nails and shards of glass that come from demolishing a glassed-in porch. I’d like to walk in the yard again someday, so I have to try to be careful about where the pointy stuff lands. (Can’t get that from a contractor).

A few minor technological revolutions have made this vastly easier than any other project I’ve undertaken. First, let me sing the praises of the laser-guided chop saw. Somehow I’ve gotten by for more than 20 years of home ownership without a chop saw, and no, I don’t know why, but man am I glad I have one now. There is a little red laser light that tells me precisely where the blade will cut. It is unbelievable. If I make a mistake, it is only in measuring, no longer in figuring out where the kerf will be. No need to get out the square and draw a cut line — just find the right measure, mark it, line it up with the laser, and chop away. Not to mention that I get the perfect square cuts that always seem to elude me on the table saw.

Second, I finally invested in a new tape measure with engineer’s marks. This means it’s in English measures, but provides decimal fractions of feet. Instead of having to figure out English fractions (and divide them, which is always the challenge), I measure something out as 4.1 feet. Still in feet, with the easy math of metric. Flaming brilliant. (Though I will ask, why have all tape measures gotten so thick? The smallish-handed among us can hardly maneuver the things.)

Third, I invested in a new Milwaukee drill/driver, with the hope that when its batteries can no longer take a charge I’ll be able to get replacements . . . which has not been true for the past two Craftsman drills I’ve had. And not only does this magnificent device show me how much charge is in the battery, it shines a brilliant LED light right on the space I’m drilling. Suddenly, I can see what I’m doing as soon as I put up the drill, instead of having it block the light. So obvious, so brilliant.

Last but not least, the very process of ordering the major parts, doors and windows, has become considerably simpler because you can download all the dimensions and specifications from the internet, figure out your spacing and what will fit there, and start to draw up your plans before you even set foot in the home improvement store. When you order windows every decade or two, it’s a bit of a daunting task, but being able to read through all the specifications and installation instructions makes it much easier.

So if you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m lashed to my laser-guided chop saw.

Bike commuting as religion: I’m doing it wrong

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Irene gave my bike a filthy.

Irene gave my bike a filthy (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Too many people seem to think that cycling, like veganism,
should be an annoying pseudoreligion, with right and wrong ways to do it, a
feeling of moral superiority, and a need to proselytize. Bike commuters,
perhaps the smallest transportation minority in this country outside of people
who dogsled to work, are among the worst offenders. Well, I’m a bike commuter, and
I’m here to tell you there is no right way, it doesn’t make me a better person,
and I frankly don’t care whether anyone else does it. It makes no difference to
me whether you turn a pedal before and after your daily wage-slavery, but I will share a
few observations from a year of biking to work.

  • The bus is cheaper. Much. Bus fare: $1.50, and I can carry
    my coffee in with me. The bike sets me back as soon as I have to buy that first
    cup of coffee in the morning. There’s also the matter of commuting shoes (I am
    a pedal snob, and need to be clipped in with the ironically named “clipless”
    pedals), rainpants, winter gloves, and an array of lights designed to confuse
    motorists enough to notice that I exist. However, my bus is being cancelled, and
    the nearest one is a 10-minute walk away, so this economic point is moot.
  • It is a most unsatisfying ride. In my case, it’s under four
    miles each way, barely worth the time it takes to prepare. The first half is down, there’s a hump over the Dunn Bridge in
    the middle, and then a steep climb, all on a heavy bike with a lot of gear I
    have to carry back and forth. The Dunn has the charm of a Soviet office block
    and detracts from what should be a lovely view of the Hudson. In the dead of
    winter I start by freezing and end up in a steam bath of my own making. There are logistics, with packing of lunch, making sure I have phones, carrying all I may need and nothing I don’t. After
    every ride there are wipes and birdbaths and much changing of clothes.Any road ride is more enjoyable.
  • Staying warm is not the problem. I have a neck gaiter, a
    helmet liner and good long-fingered gloves, and wear a layer less than if I
    were going to take a walk in the same temperature. Staying dry is more of an
    issue, and generally if you wear rainproof gear, it rains inside as much as
    outside.I now have rainpants that cost more than any dress pants I have ever owned.
  • I used to work in a building full of athletes, and getting
    on the elevator while carrying a helmet and perhaps in bike-friendly clothes
    (and we’re not even talking spandex shorts) did not raise a lot of eyebrows. I
    no longer work in a building full of athletes, and people go out of their way
    not to share the elevator with me, even on days when I’m sure I do not offend.
  • Rush-hour drivers are in too much of a hurry to fuck with
    you. So while they won’t give you an extra inch to avoid horrible potholes or
    sunken grates, they’re also not inclined to suddenly lay on their horns, lean out
    their windows and scream, or throw things out their windows. Cyclists are the
    battered spouses of transportation, and so we interpret a failure to try to
    kill us as some kind of love.
  • Riding somewhere for lunch is a tremendous delight. Being
    able to get to a place that’s not even a mile away but just too far to walk
    during lunchtime makes an enormous difference in my day, especially if I get to
    sit outside and enjoy my lunch with my wheels.  Thanks to CDTA’s bike rack map, I can always
    find out if there’s a place to lock my bike, too.

I am not a better human being because of this. Many days, I
ride my bike across the river just to get into my SUV and drive right back over
to pick up my daughter from dance class. I know this makes Al Gore cry, and I’m
okay with that. I am, however, a happier human being, even after a miserable
hot or rainy ride, because I spent an hour riding my bike that otherwise would
have just been more time spent in my car. And an hour riding a bike is better
than just about anything else.

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