Archive for July, 2008

Skulls in Brookline

July 28th, 2008

While I abut the splendid Forest Hills Cemetery (cum art museum/park), I am often unfaithful and walk the lanes of other graveyards as I can. The following images concentrate on details from the Walnut Street Cemetery in Brookline.

I had saved this one to savor, knowing it was the oldest in the town (1717) and likely filled with colonial era gems. Well, it isn’t really, but it is worth the visit. There are few noted corpses. More to my disappointment, it does not have any spectacular or unique iconography (one exception is jolly Mary Boylston).

On the other hand, it contains a fine sampling showing the evolution of the death’s head imagery into cute cherubic carvings. Click on the thumbnails below for larger views.

Disclaimer: I have been attending First Parish in Brookline, but I don’t feel that I have to defend their non-maintenance of this cemetery through 1840.

The first bit of history is that First Parish ran this cemetery until it gave it to Brookline when the church could not or would not keep it up. Unlike garden cemeteries and many private graveyards, this one started before the concept of perpetual care — paying for a sort of maintenance annuity for the graves — was in place here.

There is a preservation plan, but it is long overdue in execution.  For remarkably complete details on the history, burial at, and that plan, visit the Walnut Street Cemetery site.

Walnut Street hourglassBefore looking at the various death’s head images, wander this small graveyard. At the top of its central hill is the deteriorating iron fence of the Cook site. It has a fine example of an hourglass, illustrating the ephemeral nature of life.

The older and less imposing headstones lie almost entirely in the depressed (but not depressing) middle valley. There are a few tombs along the Western rise next to Walnut Street. By far the best art is on the stand alone stones in the valley.

Truth be told, there are many New England cemeteries with fancier examples of the carver’s art. Yet, appreciate this one for what it does have — a full range of a century and one half of development. The early 18th century horrific death’s head with sunken eye holes and forbidding teeth develops into more humanized heads with stylized features. Next comes a softened almost cherubic version for young adults and children and finally an almost realistic portrait style, much more human and human than ghastly.

At the end of the burials here, the stones went more for willows, symbolizing eternal life and even a few with graceful flowers and no overt reminder of mortality.

Three death’s head styles three death’s head styles
Young Gardner Typical late 17th and early 18th century death’s head, 1721
1721 classic death’s head wsmarygardner.jpg
Infant son’s stone Child’s version, 1723
1727 traditional skull with large eye holes Cap’n  Aspinwall
Seaver 1741 1741, end of the iconography era, with bones
1752, rounder, less stark image McLaine stone
wssgoddard.jpg 1755, shortly before the Goddard family stones began to move to more humanized images.
1768, Seuer stone showed stylized eyes and a mouth without lips instead of teeth. wsseuer.jpg
wssonsgoddard.jpg 1764,a toddler Goddard showed a rounder, but adult face instead of a death’s head.
The same carver produced a series of Goddard variations. Here 26-year-old Sarah’s stone from 1780. wsgoddard.jpg
wshgoddard.jpg Six years later, her sister Hannah (27) received a very similar image, with more elaborate borders.
In contrast, by 1794, a much friendlier, rounder image appeared on the stone of the 51-year-old Hannah Dana. wsdana.jpg
wsagoddard.jpg Also in 1794, the stone of 21-year-old Abijah Goddard shows the transition in the family previously committee to stern images. This is well on the way from a skull to a more cherubic image.
Transitional images include the Whites. Here from 1780, Moses’ stone added both the human face and obvious hair. wsmwhite2.jpg
wswhite.jpg Similarly, from the next year, the stone of his wife Rachel had a feminized version.
A little earlier, 1775, some of the later softer elements appeared on the Amos Wadsworth stone. Note the lips are stylized and minimal. The rough eyes are cartoon-like. wswadsworth.jpg
wsgriggs.jpg The humanization trends included hair, which gradually became fuller and appeared combed. The 1782 Griggs’ stone is early in this process. There’s not too much detail, but it spares the shocked look of the new eye styles.
By the 19th Century, instead of the grimness of death, the image of a willow as a symbol eternal life began to appear. An early example is on an Estabrook stone. wsestabrook.jpg
wswillow.jpg This quickly developed into more detailed and elaborate willows. This remains a common theme in New England and elsewhere.
A foreshadowing image is the 1815 Mary Allford one. It came before the fancy and more realistic willows. However, note the urn representing the body and the simplified leaves in an unnatural but esthetically pleasing arch. wsallford.jpg
wsbuckley.jpg In contrast to most stones with carved images in Walnut Street, the new style is well represented by the 1852 Charlotte Buckley stone. It has a floral motif but no overt symbolism of mortality.Various plants and flowers have their connotations, but tend to be more subtle.
My favorite in this graveyard is Mary Boylston’s 1722 stone. It is in contrast to the other stones and is an exception to the slow imagery transitions. The carver seemed to try to reflect a strong personality and represent her in much more of a portrait style than others. This is the more remarkable for its period. Mary may have been a merry soul. wsmboylston.jpg

Exposition and factoids: For reference, I often use Graven Images, Allan I. Ludwig, Wesleyan University Press. Amazon and other online sellers discount it. There a scattered details of graveyard iconography on the net. If you search, include variations, like headstone in your terms. You can find pages like the Yale University one with a  list of images appearing on Cape Cod colonial era tombstones.

High on Lowell, Again

July 27th, 2008

Damn it. I just can’t help myself. I’ve headed to the Lowell Folk Festival with my family for 20 years. They’ve been doing it two years longer.

My promo for this year was here. There’s more coming with the summer music series (up close concert seats for like $20). Lowell is fab and free, yes free. I berate chums from Boston, Cambridge and around here for not going. Not going is like not bothering to pick up the 100-dollar bills some guy throws out the window for you.

Among the folk doing folk, in the broadest sense, music this year were boogie woogie piano, gospel, fado, steel guitar, cajun, bluegrass, reggae and R&B. Everything short of chamber music is likely in the mix, with up to six stages around town at a time. Unless your idea of music is what the dentist plays, they have you covered.

Check out the playbill, replete with audio samples, here.

Pix tricks: Click a thumbnail for a little larger image.

I don’t have pix of everyone, but did a few snaps between foot stomping and clapping. Consider:

Telecaster guru Redd Volkaert. He’s twang guitar king and former chief string guy for Merle Haggard for about eight years. telecaster.jpg
steelqueen1.jpg He teamed up with with Cindy Cashdollar, the queen of steel.
They were great at jumping on each other’s tunes, while letting the other solo. steelqueen.jpg
spool.jpg We split up so each of us could catch favorites (bluegrass for one and fado for another, for example). Our youngest was sometimes less thrilled than we.
A nice touch this year was two well experienced musicians. Henry Gray and the Cats did boogie woogie blues. hgray.jpg
Over at the government plaza, where you can walk around with a beer, fans of a wide range of ages truly grokked Sister Marie Knight. rocking.jpg
sistermarie.jpg She’s famous in the gospel and early rock circuits. She’s 83, but has a rich and powerful contralto of a 20-year-old.

I confess Sister Marie was the hit of the festival this year for me. That’s often the case. An unknown becomes a favorite on the spot or as in this case, someone you figured was out of it is well in it. She moved people.

I’m not going to get too crazy about it. I’ve been bringing folk and urging many others to visit Lowell for this or that. You can search this blog or Marry in Massachusetts for Lowell references. Top of list though is the folk festival. If you don’t go at all or even if you miss a year, it’s a big loss.

Biking for Donuts

July 25th, 2008

bpjolly.jpgPastries and swag are okay rewards for a little extra cycling. Boston had one Bike Friday today and will do it again August 22. Check the city cycling area for details, maps, skeds and such.

I confess twice:

  1. I was attracted by the promise of a police escort to the convoy of cyclist (a flash of a sports team parade into town, ha).
  1. A couple of us missed the connection at Forest Hills when the local convoy either bypassed us or came pretty early.

Sets came from West Roxbury, lower Dorchester, Newton and Lexington. They all left around 7 a.m. for Boston city hall plaza. It looked like maybe 150 or so eventually arrived.

bluelight.jpgIn fact, it was a police escort, but bike cops. My vision of lights and sirens were accurate and inaccurate. The BPD-issue mountain bikes do come equipped. A 6’4″ cop showed me the stealth equipment on the handle bars. There’s a pair of bright lights that can be set to flash. A double sunglasses style blue lens can flip over them to created the familiar, dreaded flashing blue lights in miniature form. There’s a button to activate a kind of tinny police siren.

That officer looked at my raised brows when he activated the siren and said, “Yeah, I usually just yell instead.”

Pix tricks: Click a thumbnail of the plaza or police for a little larger image. Use your back button to return.

plaza.jpgThe plaza had a series of tents. Wheelworks folk were tweaking bikes. They brought a stand, full set of tools and several mechanics. MassBike, the city and others had their cycle-related forms and flyers. WZLX was blaring boomer rock. Boston cycling czarina Nicole Friedman and some of her lackeys were walking about handing out free water bottles. Even Zipcar and some sporting goods folk were there with raffles and discounts.

However, the big draw was the coffee and pastry tables. There’s nothing like a short bike ride to justify huge empty calorie intake, eh?

Unfortunately, I can’t say what it was like to roll with the black bikes with lights and sirens. I was at Forest Hills by 7:12. The scheduled convoy time there was 7:20. A nice cyclist, Marco, arrived by 7:20 and we waited until 7:35, figuring between cyclists and cops, they were sure to be late.

In fact, they must have been early. I tore down to Roslindale Square, where the officer in the blue and white said that was the first he had heard of the event and no bikes had come by him.

I headed in on my own, had a nice time, and must wonder how it feels to ride the convoy. If you decide to do the next one, I suggest going to the start or arriving early at intermediate points. Rest assured though, there’ll be plenty of goodies to carry away or eat no matter how you do it.

Let’s See S.C., GLBT

July 23rd, 2008

Amro adThey just won’t stop. The South Carolina is so gay kerfuffle was giggling amusing the first four times. I wasn’t about to write about it.

Please make them stop.

Now it’s Stephen Colbert on the case (check his vid on this). Plus, the BBC did a barely restrained interview with Chief Executive Andrew Roberts of the British travel agency who created and placed the ads.

In case you were on the beach for the past two weeks and missed the silliness, S.C. pols through Gov. Mark Sandford were shocked, shocked I tell you to find that a London ad campaign implied there was any reason for homosexuals to visit the Palmetto State.

South Carolina was just one U.S. tourist destination touted by just-north-of-London based Amro Worldwide, a huge GLBT-oriented travel agency. It placed posters in the subway station nearest the gay-pride celebrations there. Other locales include Atlanta, Boston, New Orleans and Las Vegas.

This seems to be a variation on Boston’s reaction to the Lite-Brite ad campaign. Other cities took it in stride; we panicked and continue to justify the overreaction to the ridicule of everyone else.  In S.C., a minor functionary in tourism lost a job, the state won’t pay its roughly $5,000 contribution to the campaign. The legislators and other pols on record say, “No gays here,” in their deepest voices.

It reminds a lot of folk of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University last year. He got hooted and booed when he made the outrageous claim, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

The double hoot for the S.C. is first that South Carolina’s tourism folk asked to play in the Amro campaign and approached the agency. Moreover, making a no-queers-here-no-way protest has guaranteed vastly better coverage than Amro could have bought, even with the extra $5,000.

As Roberts told the Beeb, South Carolina’s economy, particularly the tourist industry needs visitors and dollars. He said the state tourism people arranged stays over four days in Charleston and elsewhere. The hotel and other folk were eager for the gay business (pink pounds as the BBC interviewer said). He attributes the squealing from Sanford not to the tourism department, rather to “behavior of their political masters.”

Not surprisingly, Roberts said he had never thought of naming the state as a destination before they approached him. His company vets all locations, facilities, sights and activities before it adds it to its destinations. Yet when he visited, he was pleasantly surprised by the coast and Low Country. Charleston has the history, food and shopping. Myrtle Beach is huge, varied and not overly crowded. Hilton Head is at once quaint and cushy.

There are numerous gay bars in each of the few cities in South Carolina. There are a lot of other resources and travel searches provide many options.To the Beeb, he said, “This is never going to be a San Francisco or a Key West, but it’s certainly a reasonable destination, particularly for the type of people who like to go to America and have don all the popular places.”bobbert.jpg

Local note for Amro:  Roberts said he was surprised at the state’s nickname, that the palmetto was a cockroach. It is true that locals euphemistically refer to the big bugs there as either palmetto bugs or waterbugs, but the palm tree is the palmetto and both the states and roaches got their nicknames from that.

Listen in Lowell (Free)

July 22nd, 2008

guitarist.jpg

Regulars here or at Marry in Massachusetts know the deal. Get your lazy butts out of the Boston area and be in Lowell this weekend. This is the third weekend in July and for over two decades that means it’s the (fabulous, fun, free) Lowell Folk Festival.

In my not-so-subtle way, I continue to berate locals here for not trotting the half hour to Lowell for this. Yes, yes, I know that Lowell folk like many residents of smaller cities and towns, as well as those who live in suburbs, are provincial hicks about coming to Cambridge or Boston. We’re the same here. “Yeah, you’ve told me about it, but I’ve never been,” is typical from the insular slugs here.

If you’re real gritty, you can bike two plus  hours, but you can also take the train from North Station. Even if you insist on driving, you can park Lowell-y for about $5.

Let me be plain again. Do it!

By the bye, this is connected to the small-admission-price Lowell Summer Music Series. Those aren’t free but do have a wide range of well-known musicians and the occasional Shakespeare.

You like:

  • Blues
  • World
  • Cajun
  • Gospel
  • Bluegrass
  • Folk (U.S., African, European, whatever)
  • parade.jpgReggae
  • Quebecoise

It’s all there and many other varieties. It’s non-stop on multiple stages. There are workshops. Oh, and there are a couple musical parades.  It’s free.

Can’t make Friday evening? Come Saturday. Can’t do Saturday. Come Sunday. Check the sked and the description of the performers.

We have gone from the beginning and never come home without one or more new favorites — musicians we didn’t know or barely knew whom we continue to enjoy as a result.

copeland.jpg

The warning is that the conflicts in simultaneous performances in six venues within easy walking distance make for tough decisions. Picking where to be when and sadly doing triage to decide whom you have to skip this time are hard.

It’s tempting to say you get your money’s worth. Just be sure when the pleasant volunteers come around asking for donations to keep the festival going and free that you chip in a few or five or ten bucks. You’re getting a whole day of music. At virtually every stop, you are right by the stage.

This is too good to pass up. If it’s your first time, go. You can evangelize to your friends next year.

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Another Boston July Evening Well Spent

July 18th, 2008

We are Forest Hills Cemetery abutters (tell Dave Barry we have another name for a rock band). The annual stroll for the lantern festival is one of our rituals. We missed one when we were far away.

The recap follows in a few images. The sights and sounds make are lush and non-stop for three hours. If you’ve never done it, keep it in your mind or Blackberry for the third week of July next year.

Pic Trick: Click an image thumbnail for a little larger view.  It opens in the same window or tab, so use your back button to return.

Japanese dancers First comes the lantern preparation. Then in order, several styles of dancers, the drumming and the lantern ceremony. Every moment of the three-hour evening is part of an event.
After dancing comes the elaborate drumming. small drum
drum Grand Master Eleventh Generation Soku Grand Master Tsuji trains and leads the dummers.Here he honors the gigantic drum before the ceremony.
The drummers are in the martial arts tradition and train in Quincy at the Academy of Kobudo. They grunt and sweat. Many are Occidentals. Everyone seems to be having way too much fun at this. drummers
lantern frames Many hundreds of frames, in effect the hulls of the lantern boats, arrive by wagon. In effect, people rent these for a few dollars for the ceremony. Someone has to retrieve these for the next year.
People can decorate their own paper for the lantern. Most get one of the young women at tables to write their messages in Japanese characters. Many combine the calligraphy on one or two panels with their own messages or drawings. Blessings for the dead are common, such as young children sending messages to a recently deceased grandparent. lantern preparation
lanternpair.jpg When the paper with art and messages is ready, people slip them over the wooden frame. They light the votive candle and about the same time, the crowd approaches the shores and sets the lanterns afloat. The paper can act as a sails.
I’ve never gotten a really good shot of the lanterns floating. This one if from the Forest Hills Trust. See it here and check the rest of the site. lit lanterns

Dead Inventors Bragging

July 17th, 2008

Decaying entrepreneurs in Forest Hills Cemetery are at once ephemeral and relatively permanent. I think of two in particular, John T. Hancock (who?) and Richard H. Lufkin (who?). Both were wealthy big shots in their ways and days. Each treated the trappings of immortality differently.

Each was quite proud of his invention that changed his corner of the world. Each literally had an image carved in stone.

lufkin2.jpg

Consider first one of my favorite Forest Hills mausolea, Lufkin’s. It has the surely not coincidental distinction of being on the highest point of the cemetery. Outside and inside, this is not subtle.

Pix Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

The mausoleum, with six spots for family members, went up in 1928, six years after he died. Perhaps it was a relative who had the images of grandeur and not Richard. Regardless, there’s much to see here.

Lufkin tomb exterior vamp folding machine carving

At the top of the front, for example, we see that the patriarch was THE INVENTOR OF THE FIRST VAMP FOLDING MACHINE. Moreover, above the door is a large, ornate carving of the device, replete with the words that appears on the machine and the date he patented it (1877).

You might wonder what the big deal was. Well, at the time, it truly was a marvel, one that made a ton of money for Lufkin. In case you have forgotten lasts, vamps and other shoe manufacturing terms, the vamp of a shoe includes all the pieces that cover the toes and instep. There are lots of parts, and folding and holding them in situ while stitching them is the biggest part of the labor. In effect, Lufkin’s innovation made it much more economical to churn out something everyone owns multiples of, thus increasing profits for the many shoe makers.

Tracking Lufkin is tricky. I can find no mention of him in standard print or online documentation. The kindly folk at the main BPL research library located him in an old version of The National Cyclopædia of American Biography. Tidbits of his entry include:

  • Born in Charlestown on January 31, 1851
  • Died in Roxbury on July 10, 1922
  • He never married
  • He was an Oddfellow (Vernon Lodge 186 in West Medford)
  • He was a Republican who “contributed liberally to the expenses of the party”

As for the machine, it performed many related tasks and only weighed 22 pounds. Shoe factories throughout the United States and Europe used it. A year after his initial patent, a diploma from the Massachusetts Mechanics’ Association, included, “This is a well-known and meritorious machine and is standard among shoe manufacturers. It turns the edges of leather and cloth for vamps or linings of shoe perfectly, making a superior finish indispensable in a nice fitted shoe. It is unrivalled and is in use in all parts of the country and also abroad.” It earned Lufkin a gold medal at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair).

Not only did he do well from his machine, but his bio includes, “He cherished the greatest devotion to the members of his own family and he was beloved by all who knew him.”

I haven’t been able to confirm the obvious yet. However, both Tufts and WPI have industrial projects and buildings paid for by the Richard H. Lufkin Memorial Fund. It surely is the same fellow. If either or both confirm, I’ll update this post.

lufkininside.jpg

The mausoleum interior is a highlight of the cemetery. While the other grave monuments, such as the Boy in the Boat, are more in view and more visited, it is worth a climb to the northwest corner. In Summit Circle off Summit Avenue, look in the Lufkin memorial.

Left and right before the six crypt shelves are pleasant floral stained-glass windows. Straight head is old Richard himself, also in stained glass. Of course, he appears with his vamp folding machine. Under the window is a garish plastic flower display.

In his glass form, Lufkin looks mousy, rather like a stereotypical accountant. You would suppose that someone associated with such grand display of marble and glass would be physically imposing. Then again, some of the Egyptian Pharaohs were wispy too.

Just as prideful in its own way is the monolith above the grave of John T. Hancock.  His innovation was widely used but likely less enriching. His patented Inspirator valve for gasses and steam is still common place. In his life, it was essential in steam locomotives, but the engines and even the whistles.

Hancock was born in Boston (1827) and died in Sabattus, Maine (1881).

You can search for his valves now and find thousands of citations. Lufkin’s vamp folding machines seem to have been supplanted by following generations of automation. Hancock’s valves were seminal to engineering and just keep on regulating.

hancockstone.jpg

Hancock’s stone is diagonally opposite Lufkin’s eternal apartment. By the Walk Hill gate go east on Citron Avenue, looking left as you head toward the Boy in the Boat. About 12 feet north of Citron is the stone, obvious because it looks a bit like a birdhouse and because a carving of the valve appears at the base.

Hancock tombstone detail

This is another, far subtler, example of an inventor identifying with his masterpiece. His stone also proudly proclaims that he was Engineer & Inventor of the Hancock Inspirator.

Though weathered a bit, the valve is quite detailed and discernible. Hancock’s memorial whispers, while Lufkin’s shouts. Yet as far as I have seen, they are this cemetery’s only two bearing the likenesses of inventions. I have nothing comparable to put on my tombstone. Then again, if I did, would I?

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Wild Indoors

July 13th, 2008

Weasels are less cute on their backs with a tire tread pressing them to the asphalt than whizzing through the brush. I biked around a flat one on Neponset Valley Parkway this morning.

Back home in the wilds of JP, we have outdoors in or nearly so frequently. Today it was spiders and birds. Our yard frequently gets skunks, opossums, raccoons and other furries. I wish the squirrels and crows would have their own Ragnarök, leaving us beset by just one devilish species.

Pic Trick: Click on small images to see larger versions.

Today, it was eight legs and two legs though. For the latter, our adopted always-a-housecat Chi wants birds. She has never eaten one or even gotten one in paw and claw. Yet, she’s ready.

Chi huntingOur window with the bird feeder outside is kind of her television. Perhaps a peep show booth would be more accurate. In cold weather, she watches the birds — one to six at a time on the feeder and sometimes dozen in the rhodies below — through a glass storm window. Most of year, she is tantalizing inches away, separated by a screen.

It didn’t take the birds long to realize she was no threat because of the barriers. We get lots of bite-sized visitors, wrens, sparrows, tits, chickadees and such. The feeder does not let big birds or squirrels get to the seed, but a few colorful types, like cardinals and migrating fancies, such as red-wing blackbirds and orioles drop in for a meal.

birds feedingIn general, Chi is sensible. She’ll rest her chin on the sill as in this accompanying image, looking through the gauzy screen view of the feeder. She’s not cool though. Her ears and back twitch in excitement. Sometimes, she makes guttural hunting noises reserved to the locale.

Alas she can’t fully accept the feeder as entertainment. A few times a month, she leaps and lunges. In the winter, it must be a shock, slamming forehead first into the storm window in full flight herself. Then the birds leave, to return within a minutes. I am convinced cats know no humiliation.

kitchen spiderIf it’s the screen, she generally ends up plucking her claws out of the mesh and goes back to her post. Once or twice a month though, she blows it. In her blood lust, she’ll spring with fully open claws, getting one or both front paws caught. The inner and next claw of a paw will simultaneously catch on the screen and Chi is stuck. She doesn’t have the geometric savvy to open her paw more and push up to release the paw(s), even after watching with great concern as I undo her.

crab-like spiderA room away, we seldom get insect or arachnid beasties. However, a crab-like spider (see bottom pic) apparently wanted to lay claim to our new electric skillet. We’re about to get new cabinets, which means a month or so with no access to our stove or the rest of the kitchen. The skillet is part of our minimalist cuisine for that period. I’m aiming to use cold foods, and cook with the grill, microwave and toaster.

Is there a new-skillet smell? What attracted a good sized spider?

My uxorial unit is no fonder of spiders than mice. Fortunately, as with our recent rodent episode, she was not the one to discover the critter.

The spider had managed to hang its web over great distances from each breakfast-nook wall to the handle of the skillet lid and to the other wall. Unfortunately, we had plans for the spaces and removed the old web artist to the outside.

Weasel, birds, cat and spider…what shall the morrow deliver?

Where’s My Pirate?

July 10th, 2008

You can have your knitting club, your choral practice, and your soccer matches. I’ve long been into Le Tour.

July is the Tour de France, almost literally as it is a three-week bike race of well over 2,000 miles. A startling amount of that distance is up and down some of Europe’s steepest mountains.  With justification, many call this the most arduous athletic competition in the world.

Disclaimer: I have never been a competitive cyclist.  I was a wrestler briefly and a swimmer (breast) in high-school and college, including water polo as training. I still bike regularly and have for 20 years. On a road bike, I can smoke a lot of young, indolent men, but I’m no racer.

I get vicarious thrills from le Tour. Much to my surprise this year, my chosen favorites have retired or are hanging back in trepidation because of the whiff of drugs. Floyd Landis, last year’s temporary winner, was okay. He apparently figured he could sneak by with a rare drug, which likely didn’t really help him beyond the placebo effect. Lance Armstrong retired with proof-less detractors swearing he just must have been dirty or he couldn’t have won so many (7 straight) times. I prefer to think that old one-ball did it with a competitive drive I’ve never had and an OCD compulsion to excel. I can’t believe that anyone who survived cancer metastasized to his lungs and brain would take any illegal drugs.

My hero though killed himself clumsily. Il Pirata (the pirate) Marco Pantani ODed on cocaine in a pleasure-seeking hotel-room excursion. He got his nickname from his earring (a trait I share) and the bandanna he often tied on his bald head. Marco climbing

Short and ugly, he was a bear on the mountains. He often wore the polka dot jersey of the leading climber in le Tour. When he won the whole race in 1998, he broke the previous year’s victor, Jan Ullrich, in the climbs from Grenoble to Les Deux Alps in snow, rain and sleet.

I want Il Pirata back.If Ben Kingsley was manly instead of smarmy, he could play Pantani. Many of us watch this almost inhumane and superhuman endurance spectacle for those epic struggles that the heroes deliver day after day.

Now in the era of self-righteous anti-doping fervor, I wasn’t quite sure what would be left. For 105 years, Tour cyclists have ridiculed the idea that anyone could complete this race clean. At beginning, some riders would use speed and others alcohol to make the pain endurable. The wine is counter-intuitive now, but seemed to make sense at the time. Who could argue with or reason with someone about to pedal most of the way across the United States in three weeks?

Yet the new guys are not so new, but apparently pretty clean. I have my mental money on Aussie Cadel Evans. He’s racing for Silence-Lotto and has been a player and placer for years. He’s sturdy and aggressive. Alas, he is no Pirata. Yet, he finished second overall last year.

Back to drugs, it’s a terribly demanding competition of three weeks in the saddle. There are those mountains, long stretches, and heart-ripping time trials. The current attitude is no drugs, no way, and disqualify for anything non-essential, like a asthma vasodilator.

Looking at the race for many years, I think the drug testing labs (mostly French) are way behind the technologies and likely to make many mistakes. Apparently they don’t know what to do if someone has naturally high platelet or hormone levels.

Moreover, I’d cut slack for injecting your own blood from time to time back into your veins to keep the platelet and oxygen levels adequate for the demands of the race. We vary in how much oxygen our cells can deliver. If it’s your blood, why not? Well, it’s illegal right now is why.

There also should be a database of what each racer’s natural blood chemistry is. Then the tested variance would be meaningful and not against some theoretical average.

Regardless, I’m behind Evans, who at the moment is six seconds off the lead after over 24 hours of racing through stage six of 21. I’m sorry Lance moved on. I’m sorry Greg Lemond — another great comeback after his shotgun injury — turned out to be so bitter and irrational. Again, I’m sorry Il Pirata is dead.

Le Tour thrives even with those changes. We have 15 more stages and a lot of climbing.

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Odetta Aging With Power

July 9th, 2008

The skinny Odetta who performed in Franklin Park last night was and was not the one I first met 43 years ago. Although, if pressed, I might admit that I’m not the same person I was in high school as well.Odetta at Franklin Park

Most living Americans didn’t see and hear the robust and zaftig version.They wouldn’t be surprised to see the apparently frail woman in her wheelchair on stage at the Elma Lewis Playhouse. Maybe 200 of us got the benefit.

She smiles almost incessantly and seems to enjoy thoroughly everything she does. She must take considerable pleasure knowing that she can still deliver vocally, making us wonder how that big voice comes out of that little woman.

Click the player below for a three-plus minute snatch from last night. It has the authentic detail of oblivious little kids and a bit of thunder in the background.

I heard her repeatedly at NYC folk clubs, concerts and festivals. My image of her froze though from meeting her up close when she performed at my  high school in 1965. That was the big Odetta — big in every way. She was broad-shouldered and heavy. She strummed and pounded a guitar, while she tapped and stomped her feet.

While she had a lot of vocal training, she was self-taught on guitar. She claims she only knows a few chords and varies them in many ways of timing and harmonics to fit a given tune. Whatever, it worked.

The wistful finding for us oldies is to see her with unmoving legs and unable to play a guitar. As she did when she performed at the end of 2006 at the MFA, she coped with the enthusiastic help of Seth Farber, musical director of Hairspray on piano.

The Globe review at the time is fairly accurate for last evening (except as befitting the season, no Christmas music). She performs similar tunes — blues, folk and a tiny taste of protest — everywhere. She’s still a pinko at the core, but doesn’t make a huge deal out of it. More important, she can shift from song to song and even within a tune from contralto to baritone. You get the feeling that, like Samson, she could bring the house down at will.

This was part of the free series on Tuesday nights there. There are famous and not-yet-famous performers for the rest of the summer under the aegis of the Franklin Park Coalition. Last night’s also got boosts from WUMB and the Boston Banner.

Another old reminiscer, City Councilor Charles Yancey, showed up to personalize the event two ways. He pulled out the whereas sheet from the Council, running on and on about Odetta’s accomplishments over the last 60 years. The punchline was that it was officially Odetta (all her last names) day in Boston yesterday. For the personal aspect, he said he brought his future wife to hear Odetta there 40 years ago and got married shortly after. He credited Odetta with the long-standing marriage.