A moment of St. Patrick’s Day grace

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When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, I’m a bit of a humbug. Partly, that’s because I don’t drink and view most of the festivities as focused on amateur drunkenness and hooliganism. Partly it’s because my daughter was born on that day, and without any Irish heritage, she views the holiday as a major intrusion on her ability to go out for dinner on her birthday, ever. (This is, of course, her fault. She could have been born on the 15th, but nooooo.) There’s also an element of resenting the feeling that it’s not a safe day to be out on a bicycle because of all the drunk drivers, when for me it’s always a date by which I like to be out doing spring rides.

Saturday (when our cities observed the festivities, paradewise), I found myself with the challenge of having to pick up a daughter from her dance class, one block from ground zero of Albany Irishness, where the vomitorium had already been erected out front, right at the time things would really be getting underway. The only sensible option was to park nearby when I dropped her off and get on my bike for a ride; then when it was time to go, I could drive around the craziness, rather than having to drive through it to get to her.

So I got on my bike and enjoyed a pleasant, sunny ride along the river to Troy. When I got there, there was a duo called “Emerald Dawn” playing Irish music at one corner of Monument Square, entertaining a very small crowd. I wheeled around the block to get a cup of coffee, then came back to swell the ranks and enjoy the sun and music for a few minutes before heading back.

As the musicians played, a woman who likely lives in the public housing at the end of the square wandered up. She was carrying a framed jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a shamrock, with an Irish pastoral scene depicted, thatched hut and all. She danced a bit to the music and then offered to show everyone a real Irish picture. Everyone looked at it admiringly for her as the music played on. When the musicians announced they were almost done, she asked if they could play “Danny Boy,” saying that it had been her mother’s favorite. The duo obliged with a slow, sweet version, and she stood there with her eyes closed, mouthing the words, transfixed. And there, with just a song, they gifted her with a moment of grace on that chilly winter morning. It was such a beautiful thing that I even thought it might get me over my distaste for St. Patrick’s Day.

And so I rode back to Albany in the sun, and even the proliferation of drunken hooligans that were already making travel less than pleasant wasn’t enough to spoil the day.

First Spring Ride: What I Always Forget

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  • First Ride 2013 DSC_1079.jpgGetting back on a nice, sleek road bike after months and months of riding a laden-down, upright commuter festooned with mirrors, bells, lights and cargo bags is like getting into a race car after months of driving a minivan.
  • My commuter shoes clip in way, way easier than my road shoes. Not sure why that is.
  • I get a swig of salt and sand with every drink of water. Free!
  • My new Garmin vest is sweet, and timely, because I’m not sure wearing a Postal vest is considered correct any more.
  • Almost-spring sun and 50 degrees feels really, really good.
  • That’s not surprisingly good form, you idiot. It’s a tailwind. As you’ll find out when you turn around.

Another one I forgot

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Another sign I’m not of this culture? I have never owned a video camera. There are not endless hours of video of my kids making sand angels and mud forts. There ARE plenty of photographs, though, and if later in life they feel deprived of a motion picture record of their youth, perhaps they can string the frames together into a GIF. Sorry, best I can do.

(That said, I have actually taken video in the past year with an iPad, and my new D7000 has some video capabilities. But that doesn’t mean that video isn’t the devil’s medium, because it is.)

Not of this culture

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The past few weeks have been filled with cultural events that often make me think I’m not of this culture:

  • I have never seen a single “Star Wars” movie. Considering how much the fans say they hate most of them, I can’t understand why anyone would. I’ve seen enough snippets of the first one, and all of “Spaceballs,” to know I don’t need to see any more.
  • Other movies I have never seen: The Godfather, Titanic, The Sound of Music, any Rocky movie. I know what happens in them. I wouldn’t enjoy them.
  • I don’t watch awards shows. I don’t even understand why anyone would. Is there some chance that the Grammys are suddenly going to recognize good music? That might be worth watching. It will not happen, however.  Am I going to receive an award? Also unlikely.
  • I love Superbowl Sunday only because it means the grocery store is absolutely empty (of both people and potato chips). Football’s not my thing, but I get why some people are into it. What I don’t get is why tens of millions more people are into it for one game, the Superbowl, or how this has become some kind of cultural event.
  • I bike to work. I haven’t always, and it’s a huge pain in the ass, but it’s still less of a huge pain in the ass than driving to work, circling for parking spots, waiting in lines to get out of garages, wondering where you’ve left your car, having to gas up before you go.  Biking to work, even though I have to deal with traffic, never produces that anxiety, that rushed feeling that leads to so much road rage. But biking to work often gets reactions normally reserved in our culture for the homeless and/or the insane.
  • I don’t drink. There’s a lot of history, genetic and otherwise, that goes into that decision. It is wearying trying to raise kids in a culture that sometimes seems to be about nothing other than drinking, and in a city where every new business is strictly about making and imbibing alcohol. I’d blame the Dutch, but it seems wider-spread than that.
  • I think tattoos are ridiculous defacements of the human body. All of them, no matter how innocuous or personally meaningful. Scars tell a much more interesting story.

More harm than good

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A very random line from a post over at Indie Moines set me off on something that has been weighing on my mind for some time now: who is the recording artist who has gone from doing the most good to doing the most harm? I mean good and harm not just to his or her own reputation, but to the culture as whole. There are singers and bands who are great, and who are mediocre, and who are terrible, but there are very few well-known artists who occupy both ends of the spectrum.

Early on, one of my prime candidates for this distinction was The Standells. Best remembered for “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear Black,” their debut album was almost proto-punk, raw garage music that was lucky enough to catch the public fancy while so many others would have to wait for “Nuggets” and “Back From The Grave” to receive any recognition. It was a great debut. And their second album was more of the same, except for the songs that took a weird left turn into the very pabulum that it seemed like their sound was rejecting, including some very Dean Martinesque crooning. And then there was their execrable live album, which made them appear to be the worst frathouse-ready Searchers tribute band ever. Even discovering their music years after its release, I found their arc phenomenally disappointing. How could you go from the crazy rave-up of “Rari” to “Peppermint Beatle” (you don’t want to know). But they did, and it was awful. However, the damage was limited, because other than their one hit single and a bizarre appearance on “The Munsters,” who had ever heard of The Standells?

So instead let’s talk about the Jefferson Airplane, from ground zero of the ’60s San Francisco psychedelic jam band movement. A string of incredible hits, running the gamut from angry to soulful, and tremendous live performances from a band that could really rock. A few changes and they became Jefferson Starship, with a much more middle-of-the-road approach that of course their hardcore fans had to resent, but which still wasn’t quite bad music. More changes, and they were just Starship, and they committed one of the greatest cultural crimes of our time: “We Built This City.” On rock ‘n’ roll, if you didn’t know. We can’t lay all the blame at Starship’s feet, as Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin had a hand in writing this monstrosity.  How could any of the same people who made “It’s No Secret” and “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” even learn to play a song like this? It’s unfathomable, and I’d argue that if the output of the early Jefferson Airplane weren’t so phenomenal, it would have been swamped by the wave of awful that was the output of Starship.

But at the absolute top of the “more harm than good” category: Rod Stewart. If you have any love for ’70s rock at all, then Faces have got to hold a special place in your heart. The digital age has gifted us with songs and performances we never got here in the States, reinforcing early impressions that here was a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band. Songs like “Cindy Incidentally,” “Stay with Me,” and “Ooh La La” deliver everything that brand of rock had to offer, without dipping into the self-indulgence that would soon weigh it all down. Rough, energetic, inventive, and with those awesome raggedy vocals of Rod Stewart out front – he knew when to growl, where to howl, and he pulled off glam with cheeky panache. Rod’s solo career (with many of the same backers) started off with brilliance like “You Wear It Well” and “Maggie May.”  But then came “Hot Legs.” And then came “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And then came stuff that, worse than awful, was forgotten as soon as the record stopped playing. Somehow Rod stayed around anyway, and remade himself as a singer of standards. And now Christmas music. Perhaps he’ll venture into klezmer next, or Britney Spears covers. It really doesn’t matter. It’s enough that I’ve had to take him off my Sirius alerts, because nine times out of ten it will be a song I seriously do not want to hear.

There is a difference between reinventing yourself over time and just bouncing from pole to pole.

Okay, enough about your rights

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My disappointment over the tremendously self-serving reactions to Newtown and the rash of other shootings in the past few months has started to fade enough that I can think about it rationally. Almost. I’ve dropped Facebook friends, stopped Twitter feeds, and just generally shut off the nonsense that has surrounded this supposed debate about guns and mental health. Drafts one through six of this were incoherent ramblings. Let me just hit the points that are weighing on me these days:

  • Your rights are not absolute. Also, you’re not a constitutional scholar, and neither is that TV commentator you quote and retweet. With rights come responsibilities to society. All I hear about are rights — rights to guns, rights to the road, rights to not be taxed. I don’t hear anything about responsibilities to make society better.
  • We have obligations as members of society. One of those is to raise our children. Another is to keep them safe. In fact, we have an obligation to make society safe in general. That obligation outweighs your right to own military weapons. I can’t have dynamite or plastic explosives; I can’t have rocket launchers. Fuck, I can’t even buy Sudafed without showing identification, and I didn’t hear any outcry when that happened. So, no, you can’t have military weapons for your fantasy uprising league, or to defend against burglars. My father and the founding fathers got by one shot at a time, I’m sure you’ll survive.
  • Yes, something has to be done to improve mental health services. Asking for help is hard enough; actually getting it can take weeks, or months. For those who ask where the parents (well, the mothers) of our most recent batch of psychos were, the answer is they were on the phone, trying desperately to get help. Trying to find a provider who deals with actual problems (because honestly, most of the therapy out there is new-age touchy feely nonsense not aimed at the truly troubled), fighting with their insurance provider if they have one to get any coverage at all. When someone is suffering a mental crisis, the current answer is: hold on a few weeks, I’ll get you in with someone who may or may not be of any use to you, and if it doesn’t work we can get more help a month or two after that. Best healthcare system in the world! Any thoughts to the contrary are anti-American!
  • For those who think the new federal healthcare program is the end of the world as we know it, two things. One, your side had since the Clinton administration to come up with a better plan. You came up with nothing except excuses why we can’t afford to fix the system, while insurance became less and less affordable and more out of reach for individuals. Two, if you think the current system works well, you’re actually out of your mind. Have you paid the full cost of your insurance? It’s crippling. It costs more than housing and utilities every month. Does that make sense? Does it make sense that we have to make career choices based on insurance coverage? Is that freedom? Even with good insurance, the system is awful. You don’t want government bureaucrats making treatment decisions, but somehow having insurance bureaucrats make them is just fine. Well, it’s not.
  • Speaking of responsibilities to society — if you’re a father, you have a responsibility to your children. This crazy experiment of raising children without fathers isn’t working. Take a look at the family structure of nearly every one of these troubled psychotics, not to mention nearly every street criminal, and what you won’t find is a father. Let’s stop pretending this is the right way to go, and that the kids will be just fine. They’re not fine.

Faded art

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Troy Williams Street Alley faded signage DSC_0538.jpgOnce, every sign was a handpainted sign. For a while in the ’80s, I worked in an office next to one of the last of the old signpainters, a gentleman artist who could make a “Please turn off the lights” sign look lovely. Technology had already taken over by then, and with the advent of desktop publishing more and more signage became computer-based. I’m afraid that the grand old signs that used to grace the sides of city buildings, making life a little more colorful and interesting, are things of the past, slowly disappearing.

At least some of them are being documented, such as in my Flickr group Faded Signage. Take a look through if you love these old relics.