Archive for January, 2009

The Sudden Disappearance of Thumper

January 22nd, 2009

The arena in the snow was white on white, but the agon was plain enough, if bloodless. While it was no lion bringing down a wildebeest, this was on a golf course in a fair-sized city, not on the tundra nor on the veldt.

On cross-country skis this morning, I had already felt pleased by yet another day out. We’ve had four feet in the past month. Also, unusual for a place with a steady moderating breeze from the Atlantic, the air has been cold enough to keep skiable amounts on the ground. That’s been fine and I wasn’t expecting a Mark Trail-style nature lesson as well.

Yet, the tiny rabbit tracks on the thick cover made me look. To the left and right, I could see larger tracks of big rabbits. The paddle-like pair of rear feet had smaller, rounder front paw prints between. The small tracks showed a bunny wee enough and light enough that the front prints barely left marks.

Visually following those tracks toward the nearby copse (and the burrows at the base of various trees), I saw that they didn’t go the entire 100 feet or so. Skiing over, I saw the rabbit-sad/hawk-glad story.

There was a bowl maybe two and one-half feet across. On each side were clear feather marks. The hawk has surprised the rabbit, grasped it, and struggled briefly with it, certainly leaving with its meal in its claws.

In the bowl were the dents left by the fight, but again, no blood. Likely the rabbit was still alive when the hawk took wing.

I confess that I regretted not having a camera handy. Moreover, tracks I had cut with my skis yesterday afternoon had blown over with snow, leaving just concave grooves. This also suggested that as all the rabbit tracks were clear and the wing marks still visible, that the raid had happened not long before I noticed. If I tried to return to document the scene, there would be nothing conclusive left.

Were I a preacher, except in the informal way so many writers and bloggers are, I might hold forth on the transience of life. Only in a few places do we humans have such natural predators as sharks or tigers. It’s fair to say that we are most in danger from other humans.

I’ve had many friends and acquaintances die from diseases or car wrecks or street violence, but none killed suddenly for food. The closest I can think of is a young, brilliant, beautiful musician who died freakishly when a horse out West leapt over a rise onto her car’s windshield. There too, no one was hunting anyone.

Even with no gigantic critters hunting us as we go about our business, there are reasons for the prevalence of the cliché about the fragility of life.

Fred Taps into Obama’s Speech

January 21st, 2009

We’re half way down the cliff into the economic canyon of no return, folk out there want to blow us up, and more. So, new President Barack Obama’s carryall speech that did not shy from reality was grim listening.

Fred and Ginger in Swing Time

However, I did get one giggle…via the ghost of Fred Astaire.

Most of us, including Obama and I, weren’t around for the 1936 Swing Time with Fred and Ginger. Yet, he clearly has seen it.

Fortunately, he doesn’t have the disease so many younger folk do in covering ignorance with, “I wasn’t even born yet.” He’s learned and paid attention.

Instead, his speech alluded to a key Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields tune in the movie. Its recurring refrain is “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” His slight variation was “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

My high-school chum Paula Delancey had an infectious love of musicals, particularly those with Fred. She taught many of us that cute can be enough and sincere counts for quite a bit.

In Swing Time,  Fred wanted the gal and was willing to humiliate his clumsy self taking dancing lessons from her. In our reality, Barack has the gal and merely wants to lead his nation and the larger world to stability.

The image may not have been as powerful as that at the end of Obama’s speech citing George Washington at Valley Forge, but I’ll take them both. We’ve fallen, but…

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Skiers as Hood Ornaments

January 20th, 2009

Forest Hills Cemetery as ski resortOne of our in-town ski resorts may require stealth access. From Woodbourne, we are within walking distance of three undesignated cross-country ski areas — Franklin Park’s Devine golf course, the Arnold Arboretum and Forest Hills Cemetery.

The city owns the golf course and the dirt and roads of the arboretum (the plants belong to Harvard), but the graveyard has been private since it opened in 1848. However, FH is the second U.S. garden cemetery, meant for more than corpse storage. Unlike the nearby necropolises, St. Michael and Mt. Hope, FH was a park from the beginning, meant for contemplation, passive recreation and such human bonding as picnicking. It is also a sculpture garden with works by some of the nation’s most noted stone cutters and metal artists.

Pic Click Trick: Click on the thumbnail for a larger view or see a few more here.

For a quick spin, we’ve skied in FH for many years. The arboretum can seem like 128, with all its Brooklinites and surburban types unloading from their SUVs. The golf course is farther, but definitely less crowded and equally as rural in the snow. FH is right there and when the sidewalks haven’t been cleared, it’s an easy ski from Woodbourne, no car needed or wanted.

(Cue threatening music.) A couple of snows ago over the end-of-year holidays, we got the bum’s rush from a control-freak security guard. He wanted us to leave and not bring our skis back. The snowshoers, cars, trucks and bikes were okay, but no ski, no way.

He insisted skiing was forbidden, not passive recreation (did he think they had tiny motors hidden underneath?). We skied around and avoided him, but he looks like trouble.

Judgmentally, I figure him to be ex-military, but Army and not Marine from his unkempt sideburns. He was definitely a rules-are-rules type who will take charge until there is a superior officer at hand.

I can’t say I was amazed after several conversations along that line with a neighbor who has spent his career working there. He says when the crew puts the snowplows on its Jeeps, the operators hate cross-country skiers. The running joke over there is that cross-country skiers make nice hood ornaments.

We can set aside that:

  • No skier has ever been hit or run into a Jeep or caused any accident.
  • The cemetery has lots of traffic — motor vehicles, walkers, runners, dog people, cyclists.
  • Anyone operating a plow has open vistas making it easy to see any of those visitors well in advance.
  • Skiers there all seems to pay attention and there’s next to nowhere that a hill would let a skier travel fast onto a road.
  • Unleashed dogs are far more common and more likely to cause problems than a couple of skiers.

The point is that the employee folklore disses skiers. FH management would be stupid to ban skiers. After all, they are in the business of marketing their plots, which includes keeping FH a pleasant place to spend time, maybe a very long time.

We may have run across the one sour guardian. Alternately the perceived wisdom of occasional plowers may bubble up to the FH office. TBD

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A Teen’s Worst Days

January 20th, 2009

To my 9th grader, parental cruelty seems both innovative and relentless. On Saturday, for just one example, he had a new most-hated activity — snowshoes.

He is recently at a numerical disadvantage. There’s one of him and two of us. He goes on more arbitrary and abusive trips with his evil parents than before his closest brother went to college at the end of last summer.

That was long the fate of the elder of his two brothers, who was an only child for 11 years, outnumbered the whole time.  That one accompanied us to restaurants, theater and more in Manhattan and Boston. Our behavior with and expectations of him were such that he was well behaved from toddlerhood, speaking as a peer with adults and never disrupting.

My sister had warned me that having more than one child in the house at a time changed the dynamics, shifting power to the children. Too, too true. They want to cut a deal or even strike against plans. Wheedling can give way to yelling and worse.

Let’s consider three of our tortures.

  • Snowshoes. Tromping around shin-high snow in abutting Forest Hills Cemetery should be a bucolic and pacific prolonged moment. There’s stillness, abounding nature from the trees to snow to hawks, and there’s the joy of using your body. Or, there’s boredom, discomfort from toe to hip, an open-ended chore when there’s Guitar Hero awaiting, only parents to relate to, and always and ever the lifting of one metal flipper after another. Take-away, “I hate this more than anything I’ve ever done!”
  • Opera. The son of my wife’s college girlfriend was finishing his cello degree at Juillard and we converged to attend Aida at the Met. Not only do I love opera, but it was a weekend in my old (and favorite) town. To our youngest, it was four hours of inconceivable agony. For four hours, not even the little translating screen on the seat-back amused him. The elephants may as well be paper cutouts. Take-away, “Why would anyway pay to listen to that screaming!”
  • Ballet. When the Kirov came to town, you can be sure we were there. Our youngest had been one of the lucky students given free lessons by the Boston Ballet; recommended by his teachers for his physical skills, he had learned and enjoyed — until peers teased  him out of taking ballet lessons. We had gotten him to agree to the course and when it was over, it was over. I mistakenly thought that a few sword fights, some intense masks and lots of jumping about would work for him. Take-away, “This was the worst night of my life!”

So, there you have it. He already knows what he hates most. He’s already experienced the nadir of his life. It can only be up from here.

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Judges and Jackets Mix It Up

January 10th, 2009

Yet another subculture thrives from Waltham to Atlanta to Chicago. Last night, we were suddenly hip deep in UUA basketball. There are geeks galore, rapid Brandeis fans, wasp mascots and more.

Cost center two is a freshman at the University of Rochester. His school’s mens and womens’ basketball teams went palm to face with those from Brandeis yesterday. He didn’t really care to go the 12 to 15 miles from JP, but his parents did.

U who?

Note that the Brandeis Judges and Rochester Yellow Jackets are members of the University Athletic Association. Huh? That’s a scholar-first/athlete-second set of geeky schools — Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Emory, NYU, Chicago, Rochester, and Washington University.

I went to undergraduate down South, where sports are big time, big business, big bucks, big deal. UAA seems to have teams that do this on the side after their studies.

On the other hand, teams that don’t stock store-bought scholarship members are often more fun to watch. They tend to be good, but not great or freakish physically in height or muscularity. The human scale of appearance and action is refreshing.

I confess as a former team athlete that I appreciated that the first such UR evening I attended, “my” team won both. The UR women beat the Judges 66-62 and the men won 73-69.  Yet, in these small schools where academics come first, the play is often pretty even, with scores close enough to keep everyone perking and peeking.

He’s Allen

No one was more alert and involved than the rotund amateur cheerleader, whom I have come to learn is Allen Karon (Brandeis ’91, from Canton).  As my mother might have said, he’s no Cary Grant, but he’s damned enthusiastic.

U of R mascotFrom the shoot-around, into every second of both games, including the break, he was all over the bleachers and in front of the crowd. He leads the cheers and clapping. His distinctive black shirt with white letters sums up what he’s about. The front has DEIS DEIS DEIS in three rows and the back reads I’M ALLEN.

He was occasionally sour, as when he’d yell to disrupt Rochester freeshooting. Yet, at the end, he came to the side where most UR fans sat (we were obvious in our yellow togs with those cartoon wasps. He looked us in the eyes, catch as catch can, and congratulated us on the teams’ wins.

No one enjoyed the games more than he, regardless of the outcome.

Cheek to Jowl

This year, the UR women are top ranked in this little group, closely followed by NYU and Brandeis.  The UR men are more toward the middle, following Carnegie Mellon, NYU and Washington. Yet the games are fun and exciting because, unlike powerhouse conferences, no one or two teams dominate and shame the others. On a given night…as the expression goes.

Showing my partisanship, I must note that the officiating was so partial that it was amusing. I hope when the teams play again in Rochester that they get fairer officials. The guys and woman in the striped shirts were very chummy with the Brandeis coaches, particularly the womens’. There were some outrageous fouls committed by the Judges with no whistle. A woman would put her hand on a UR woman’s chest and push, a man would leap and come down over a UR man’s head and knock him on his face, and so on. Basketball is as physical as any sport except perhaps sumo, but some of this was hard to watch.

Even with a bit of help, both Brandeis teams came up short. Yet, it was just a little short and there was no loss of face. It must have been a bit tougher for the women. They came in 11 and 0, so this was their first loss.

The short of it is that I’d recommend a Brandeis basketball double-header. It takes place in the Gosman center, which has a court very similar to and even a little smaller than UR’s. You’re on bleachers a few feet away from the action. There’s only one side with seats. Also, I assume that all games are also free, as was yesterday’s.

Wave to Allen.

Eyeglasses, I Say

January 7th, 2009

Most American men seem to believe if they put on the most minor variation of eyeglasses that they have joined with Elton John. A light wire frame? Wild!

You can cut me a super-thin slice of that.

As my favorite optician (and personal frame scouter) told me, “Americans have no sense of style.” Another, a Gen-Xer woman said of her frame suppliers, “They only give us crap.”

Ray-Ban yellow framesMe? I wear dull suits and almost fit in with the funereal New Englanders in clothes.

For glasses though, I’ve worn them since I was in elementary school. Back then I had a choice of brown or tortoise shell. Even back then, I knew they were dull, unnecessarily dull.

So it was with deep delight that I feel into a junkie/supplier relationship with a frame maven. Oddly enough, it came through a drearily dull insurance agent. We had just moved from Manhattan to downtown Boston and he stopped by as part of a family trip.

Old Al recommended the optician he’d visited since attending college here. That would be Gopen Optical on Kneeland Street in Chinatown. We did and were initially surprised to meet Jews instead of Hindus. The Shwoms, father and son, Sydney and Leonard, had bought the business. Moreover, Len had set his heart on being an optician from age five — no cowboy, rabbi, firefighter, industrialist or professor, rather dispensing optician. He lives the dream.

My wife was soon jealous of the relationship. I was pretty firm and specific about wanting fun and good-looking frames. I would arrive solo or with family members and invariably Len would say, “I found some frames I’ve been holding for you.”

I wanted dark green enamel, red wire rims, whatever, he’d find them or bring out his own treasures. He’d convert funky sunglasses frames for my progressive lenses. We’ve been a team for a lot of years.

When he couldn’t find the type of heavy, deep yellow I wanted, he suggested I hit the internet. If I could find the frame and buy them, he’d make my lenses fit. With a bunch of clicking (fun for a frame freak), I found Italian-made Ray-Ban frames (5032-2027). The delivered air-freight price from Rome was $117 through United Shades. Not only was it what I wanted, it was even cheaper than Plain Paul frames. Haar.

Also wearing glasses from childhood, my wife endured the inevitable cat glasses of the 1950s and suffered through a similar drought of choices. Women have always had a greater range with glasses, though not as much as with clothing and shoes.

She’d ask why Len sussed out magnificent frames for me and not for her.  It was plain to me that he enjoyed my joy, that he liked outfitting my face as much as I reveled in the next find. She, like most folk, wanted the exact same as she had or something a tiny bit different. Those folk are too open to negotiation and compromise.

A few years ago, Syd died. Len was suddenly exhausted as an optician. He sold the business to two employees, who opened a sort-of Gopen as Two Opticians in South Boston.  They’re competent and nice enough guys, but they aren’t about to meet my ocular needs, much less squirrel away frames just for me.

Not long after he closed the Kneeland Street spot, Len did me a glasses favor for old-time’s sake. He adapted another pair of those sunglasses, this time black wire instead of red. He used his brother’s glasses shop…definitely as a favor for old time’s sake. I had called him at home and lured him into the act.

So, you can imagine my delight when I got a postcard in December, reading “WE’RE BACK !!!  A NEW GOPEN OPTICAL.” Len apparently couldn’t take it and settled in Dedham Square next to the theater with the Museum of Bad Art — its original men’s room location.

Len is a pro when it comes to lenses, frames, fitting and such. He’s no one’s alpha geek with a computer though. He kind of has a website, but it’s only a splash like a business card.  You must go see him. He’s worth the trip.

I biked down to see the location one Saturday and found the need a week later. My yellow frames (in the pic) just snapped in the extreme cold.

We had a good and long reunion. His daughter is the age of my youngest son, so we could catch up on families too. He couldn’t get what I had, but he fell into our old ways. He ended up with a trip to the basement and returned with a dark blue number that fit my old lenses (with a little grinding).

As I learned in New York, it’s important to have a relationship with your green grocer. I’ve transferred that particular skill to the Haymarket, where I’ve gone as long as I’ve visited Gopen. Some stall guys will say, “You don’t want the oranges today,” or “These apricots are just right,” to me.

I can definitely say it’s also important to have a relationship with your optician. Also, to all you guys out there, don’t be so damned timid. If you wear glasses, you have them on all day every day. Get real. Have fun.

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New Beer’s Eve

January 5th, 2009

I have heard that I am known to drink a beer or ale on occasion. This New Year’s Eve was such an occasion. I suspect my eve was more pleasant and memorable than yours…through little doing of my own.

My effort was only in arranging for family friends to add my two teens to their small group in a large house, reserving a hotel room in New Hampshire, and driving north with the uxorial unit into squint-making, driving snow and sleet.

A friend and former co-worker did the thinking, organizing and even airplane shuttling of a keg. He showed that many can benefit from an avocation that straddles passion and obsession. Bless him.

Michael Fairbrother hosted a beer-based party that few could have pulled off for a variety of limitations. On the five taps in his basement, he offered:

Michael and I shared a manager with a titanic ego. He feigned humility when one of us did something well. He bowed and said, “I am not worthy.” Well, I sincerely felt that at this event.

Brother Fairbrother, as I am wont to call  him, assembled a remarkable set of brews. Apparently none of them had ever been served in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Each was a keg of fresh brew. Each represented an extreme level of its type.

Moreover, because he is a long-term home brewer and award winner for his output, he knew the people who owned these breweries. Only because of that, did they ship him their limited production, or in the case of Furious IPA, let him fly out to Minnesota with an empty keg and leave with the real thing.

I am not worthy.

As the evening progressed, the adjectives, largely superlatives, buffeted our ears. Then the closeted but very real vanities popped out in ones and twos. About 10 of the guests are also members of the 18-year-old Brew Free or Die club. Most brought bottles of their own best brews to share. Many brought impressive brews they had bought.

The host also opened bottles of his own beers, ales and meads.  I’m not much for the latter in general, thinking of it as spoiled soda pop, but his strong raspberry-based mead was remarkable.

He capped the evening by sharing a jeroboam of Unibroue Maudite. He had saved the gigantic bottle from a Canadian trip and wowed us all, even after tasting the kegs and bottles all evening.

We unworthy ones did bring the food, each specialties and favorites.  Normally, those offerings would be the basis for conversation and memory. Hah.

The food was in several rooms upstairs, most of the drinking took place in the bar area. The basement has a gigantic TV and couches on one side, the bar with its taps and stools on the other. The other half of the floor is his professional brewery, replete with three bourbon kegs for aging his own and group efforts.

The hubbies seemed to be the brewing half of the various couples. We overheard or conversed with the wives about the club and brews. They were very knowledgeable, much like mates of professional athletes. Each said she could never do what her husband did, but boy, did she know the lingo, the process and the ingredients.

Happy new year to them. Happy New Year’s Eve to me.

The only downside is that my chum John, who also went, will be a lot harder to impress at our every-other-weekly visit to some micro-brew bar. We have tasted the promised land.

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