Archive for September, 2008

Alter Kaker at Cleary

September 29th, 2008

Another advantage of cycling in the city is that you are head-level with ambulatory humanoids.  Today, I got a quick hail in Cleary Square. Stopped for the River/Hyde Park light I looked up when I heard, “Wish I had a bike.”

Jolly cyclingHe appeared in his late 60s and cheerful enough in that dour old-guy way. He had news and noise though.

He lamented that the bike shop wanted a fortune for new bikes. I told him mine wasn’t a high-end one. He went on to lay out his frame of reference. “I could buy a new house for what they charge. They want $150 for a new bike. $69 for a used one.”

I quickly mused on the housing you could get for $70. I think that’s the clearance price on a two-room nylon tent at Campmor. Then again, a place to put in on would be extra.

I encouraged him to get a used bike. The light changed.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Mogul?

September 27th, 2008


You may actually agree with the FT‘s House & Home lead article on our Presidential contenders’ houses. It describes (and illustrates) their main digs and states, “(T)he places they’ve chosen to make their homes can easily be seen as symbols of the different ideologies.

Don’t think sharecropper’s shack here. Both are rich guys — one by joint lawyer’s pay and two top-selling books, and the other by marrying, shall we say, wisely.

Occasional Plug Repeat:  Regular readers here or at Marry in Massachusetts know I suggest subscribing to The Nation and the Financial Times. The FT, particularly the weekend edition, has much more than business numbers and analysis. I think it has the best political columns anywhere. It’s not expensive, but if you don’t subscribe at least go online and get hooked there. For this piece, you need to see the print edition for the house pix.

The answer that John McCain flubbed in an interview is eight. He (probably more like his heiress uxorial unit) owns eight houses. There’s no count on the total bedrooms, but I wonder whether they ever wake up feeling as disoriented as I did when I used to travel a lot on business. Coming to unsure what direction your head is pointing can do that.

For house voyeurism, the FT justifies its gawking with vetting from McGill history professor Gil Troy. [Surely you must enjoy the elegance of being able to introduce yourself as, “I’m Gil, from McGill.”] He specializes in U.S. Presidents and contends that thing like where they live “…do affect a candidate’s world view.”


The Obamas have lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. He and then they were in the lower end of housing in this mixed area. Three years ago, they bought a $1.65 million brick Georgian revival (four fireplaces and a wine cellar). Yet the area is near the University of Chicago has blends of incomes, races, and ethnicities.

McCain claims his primary place is now the $4.6 million, 7,000 square foot condo in the Camelback Corridor outside of Phoenix.  It seems to be peopled by, guess who? — rich white Republicans.

The article figures the lessons here are:

With holiday homes in such pretty locations and a primary residence in the heart of conservative, consumerist, clubby America, it’s easy for detractors to claim that McCain lives in a pristine, privileged bubble. But Obama’s home sets him up for an equally harsh critique, with Hyde Park cast as an elite, liberal, academic community – its own post-modernist urban enclave.

Wait, wait, you want more? Flip the page and get to my wife’s won’t-miss weekend FT column, The Secret Agent. That is as in realty, not spooks.

Snark rules as usual here in discussing the domiciliary needs, desires and troubles of the stinking rich. While the houses, apartments, land and views discussed are real enough, TSA knows how silly the self-indulgent super-wealthy generally are.

This week, he or she (who knows; it’s a secret) reveals that our local and exported financial panic and reality hits right below the very top, but still pretty high. The really, really rich knew this was coming and got their profits out and safe. Don’t fret. They don’t have to scrimp at all.

“No,” TSA write, “the people who are really suffering are the middle-ranking employees who support the high-end rental and the £1m-£5m sales markets in London. These are the men (and some women, of course) who saw great futures for themselves so lived happily on credit, overstretching to buy in Holland Park, Chelsea, Notting Hill or Fulham then investing in extensive upgrades at the top of the market. Or, instead, they paid obscene monthly rental rates for the super-luxurious flats they thought they deserved but could not yet afford.”

I trust you have tissues handy. Some of these people are unable to maintain or sell their overvalued luxury homes. As TSA shockingly states, “But, as ‘Doom’ and ‘Gloom’, my friends who were made redundant by Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley earlier this year, will testify, the supply of well-located houses with under-floor heated limestone bathrooms and all the other trimmings – the very type of properties they’ve been trying to sell for months – is already far above the demand for them.”

Well, there you have it. The very best people — oh, not really, but almost the best, or still pretty, formerly high end — might have to move into one of their lesser homes. Lackaday.

Coach Liske’s Body Dies

September 26th, 2008

My high-school swimming coached died yesterday at 98. His hundreds of boys (and one girl) are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. We live his example and training every single day.

Coach was competitive in the water, but cared little for the least meaningful comparisons otherwise. Yes, he had 32 consecutive winning seasons at Plainfield (NJ). Yes, lived 98 years (he attributed longevity to his athleticism and good Ukrainian genes). Yes, he is in various halls of fame. In the pool and only in the pool, numbers mattered to Coach. That’s a lesson many in the all too shallow world never hear. Coach never measured himself or others by their income or height or anything trivial.

What he really cared about was that his boys were good people who acted well and tried hard. Moreover, his 80th and 90th birthday do’s were jammed with us and oozed love and respect.  I certainly could not have filled a banquet hall with people who adored me. He didn’t have to try.

For us, he was an all-around father figure, the best possible role model, and without stretching it, a hero. Coach had lost a couple of fingers and most a leg in a wreck as a child. He was still a highly competitive, record setting backstroker in high school and college.

He was totally unselfconscious about putting on his prosthetic leg or swimming. We certainly never complained about a sore muscle when we didn’t really feel like practicing on a given day.

I was one of many of his boys who looked to him for how a man should behave. My divorced mom raised my sister and me solo. In the summers and long holidays, her father was my example, and he was a fine one. In my key high-school years, Coach played that role five days a week, six months a year.

While I internalized his example, many others told me how he kept them focused in school and out of trouble. Instead of yielding to the urban perils of gangs, petty crime and alcohol or other drugs, we honestly wondered what would Coach think and acted accordingly. Sincere and soft-spoken, Coach was still the one person beyond ourselves we didn’t want to disappoint.

He’d drag us down to far inferior spots to give the other team the experience. I remember Asbury Park, where we swam in a near marsh of a dingy Y pool against guys I would have had retake Red Cross Intermediate classes. We were there for them, not for us. Coach had us work with them on strokes and practice with them. He minimized our score as best he could — I was breast, but swam against their two best crawl guys in the 100 free, for example.

In fact, he hated running up the score. We swam to exhaustion against as good or better Columbia or Westfield, but we kept it close with the others.

He outlived his three wives. He grieved each deeply, as he felt all his passions and compassion. It’s no surprise that women sought him out when he was widowed. Sure, he had great eyes and was good enough looking, but that wasn’t it. His relentless intensity and boundless empathy were a killer combination He was fully with the person before him, whether he was refining a stroke or talking over a meal.

As sports editor of the schools Entrée, I  wrote a column on his retirement as swimming coach. I should probably key that in and reproduce it here. He told me he framed it and kept it on his desk. I could have cried hearing that. None of us could have given him back what we got from him.

He never asked anything of any of us he didn’t do and hadn’t done. Honesty and candor, those were givens. Best effort (and a bit more), that was the base for behavior always.

Of course, as any good coach, he made us the best athletes we could be. In retrospect, I think of myself, showing up at 16 after my first year in high school on the wrestling team. Most on the team has been swimming competitively from elementary school days or not much later. I think most coaches would have told me to go away. Instead, Coach had me try the four strokes. It was probably the large muscular shoulders that had him focus me on breast, but later he’d joke that my huge feet were like flippers and gave me an advantage.

Within two years, I actually was a pretty good breaststroker, not the best in the state but in the top tier. Thanks for that, Coach, and the confidence that came with it. More than that, thank you for having faith in me, for inspiring me and for being what you would ask of others.

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Bike Schmuck Strikes

September 25th, 2008

I knew a woman who referred to Snooton and Swellesley for the attitudes of our near ‘burbs. I bet she’d have a good one for Brookline as well. The pseudo-aristocracy lives — in grandeur — there.


Today at Trader Joe’s, I had biked from my humble JP digs to pick up some hippie-dippy foods for my weekend dinner guests.  But, holy bike humps, Batman, some putz had commandeered almost all the gigantic bike rack. Someone had locked a bike parallel to the rack.

What was left in a Ribbon Rack® designed for nine bikes was the last hump. There was one bike there the right way, leaving just enough space on the outside of the hump for my thin wheel.

I translated this piggishness to parking in a fire lane or handicapped zone because you’re special. I opened my bag to get paper and pen for a zinger scolding note. Lackaday, I had cleared out the contents earlier and was foiled.

As I took off my bike shoes, the schmuck emerged with her own tiny bag of mouth delights. She was late 40s or early 50s, plenty old enough to 1) know how to use a bike rack and 2) to have some consideration for us lesser mortals.

I: You really shouldn’t block the whole bike rack.

She: Oh.

I: A lot of us can share this rack.

She: There wasn’t enough space for my bike in the rack.

I: There’s a mountain bike and a road bike at this end. Both fit fine. Yours would too.

She: (Shifting to justifications) I’ve never seen any other bikes here. (This suggests that she is in the habit of bogarting the rack. Also, in my experience, there are usually two to four bikes locked here.)

I: (Silent but looking.)

She: I’m sorry.

I: Thank you.

She: Well, there’s nothing else I can do about it now.

I bet she isn’t chastened, that she’ll be a repeat offender, and that if I had been even sterner, it wouldn’t have made any more difference. Well, I’m still going to be considerate of others, even those dreadful cyclists. I’m still going to speak to (or, less bravely, leave nasty notes for) entitled princes and princesses.

The Grump on Charity Cycling

September 21st, 2008

Who hasn’t known the emotional discomfort or even dread of gift wrap, Tupperware, candy bars, and in recent years, the charity rides and walks? Neighbors, coworkers, relatives, church members, and kids you’ve never seen all have good causes. Maybe Girl Scouts seeded this weedy ground with their cookies  (hey, I’ve been known to eat a Thin Mint, or a dozen).jr_cookiebiz.jpg

When the good cause wears the loud, heavy chains of guilt, compulsion and expectation, most of us cringe. Daughter Cassandra’s school sold great gift wrap at very high prices and bought school stuff. You know it’s the mom who stands bald faced before one coworker after another, holding the order form with many empty lines.

We did end runs with our kids’ schools. I refused to have my guys walk around bothering neighbors and maybe putting themselves at risk peddling crap for fund raisers. We’d do the cowardly but efficient and emotionally unburdened writing of a check to the school instead. Sometimes though, I’d had to face people I knew well or a little with their charity or good-cause clipboard.

When Walk for This and That and The Other became as common as sports pages above the urinals, I learned to transfer my school skills. I’d agree to support the charity directly by writing a check to it, but not pledging for the chest-thumping, righteous ride or walk. We give to churches, politicians, Project Bread, the UU Service Committee and on and on, but I don’t do pledges for chums.

Today was a ruined ride for me. As a serious and regular cyclist, I was crushed to find that the Hub on Wheels ride around Boston has been co-opted with the pretense of charity.  It’s tough for me. I have already pushed for Boston newish bike czarina, Nicole Freedman to re-start the Tour de Graves. Went on maybe six of those tours and dragged my non-cycle-loving wife on one, which she to enjoyed. They were for a cause too — the $10 or $15 registration fee went directly to support upkeep of the city’s historic burying grounds. There were no pledges from startled coworkers and no charity infrastructure bled the proceeds in costs. Also, some company invariably paid for t-shirts so you gave a little, got a little,  and no neighbors were shamed in the process.

Yet, the yuppie types love this charity ride/walk/run shtick. Particularly the competitive and comparative types, the literal ones, want to pile up the pledges and just feel super swell about themselves.hubonweels3.jpg

From a distance, I can believe two things. First, these good causes would not get this level of donation without the special event, that is, they are effective. Second, that really shouldn’t be the case; if the charities are worthy, a word to the wise and generous should be more than sufficient to fill the bank account. This modern ritual in which you can cast all etiquette and kindness aside to hassle people you know little or well is a cruel one.

Generosity for its sake is not the way of the new, devolved Hub on Wheels, nor of the nation right now. For today’s ride, for example, the original idea was to get more folk involved in cycling, particularly as our mayor is a bike convert. It’s good for the environment, reduced noise and pollution, blah blah. Plus, thousands of Bostonians would grok cycling and each other.

Those weren’t sufficient reasons for someone. The goofed up particulars ended up:

  • A base $45 registration fee whether  you wanted the 10, 30 or 50 mile version.
  • A charity aim to buy computers and related stuff for BPS in tough times.
  •  “A $250 pledge commitment is strongly encouraged—think of it as just $25 from ten friends.”
  • Join one of 11 featured corporate teams for tchotchkes or other small bribes.
  • Bike jerseys and similar fancy prices on a competitive basis for the highest fund raisers.

So fostering cycling and the bonhomie of the big ride went under the wheels. I’d like to think I’d be the kind of person whom the HoW folks would want to participate. In fact, they allege that you don’t have to annoy people you know for pledges, just pay the $45 ($55 by event day).

Instead, what they wanted was an event, a mega-event that they could say more than justified itself. You can measure the good in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

More than one person has accused me of being cynical. My cynicism today involves thinking that the obvious purposes of promoting cycling in a city that could benefit hugely from fewer cars on the road and more butts in saddles instead of SUV seats is vastly more important. All that got lost today.

I walked to church from JP to Brookline, about 3.5 miles. Clumps of four to 60 cyclists passed, apparently on their way to Forest Hills Cemetery. I saw the routing signs there yesterday, returning from my own long bike ride.

The schools will benefit, even after expenses. I remain a cyclist and think less kindly about mixing messages. Yeah, yeah, it’s possible to do both at the same time, but honestly, the environment, exercise, and trying to shift to a cycling culture are important. Self-satisfaction by charity fund-riders is not so significant.

Hands off the tropes!

September 12th, 2008

A big loss living in the North is the literary qualities of ordinary speech. While I’m where I belong after 10 years in Manhattan and 29 in Boston, I know and notice that most Yankees are ignorant of the art of words.

In contrast, many Southerners come from a much more oral tradition. Metaphors and puns, allusions and tropes spill out continually in ordinary conversation. Whether it’s a cashier, waitress or governor, colloquialisms and other colorful language are everywhere. Yankees may lead in academic lectures and texts, but Southerners put the play in wordplay all day long.Their literary tradition reinforces this.

Of course, that came to mind with the current silliness of Barack Obama using a very old Southernism like putting lipstick on a pig. For the moment, we can pretend that John McCain, G.W. Bush and other Republicans don’t also use that expression, one that has spread widely in this country and beyond. This trivial case is not necessary to prove their hypocrisy and dishonesty.

What’s at work here is not so much this expression as the effort to rob us of such a small, but important pleasures. Southerners don’t strain at wordplay or make it a contest. Instead, the regular aural thrills are part of the gracious gifts of discourse and human contact. A memorable expression here, a flare of humor in the next moment, and the occasional mot juste (not a common phrase down there) are the small pleasures that serve as social lubricant.

I’m certainly not ready to cede those mundane but important pleasures.

Who’s Good Looking?!

September 3rd, 2008

Right down there with the shallowest of defects is goofing on someone’s physical flaws. Coming up!

First note that I’m not unobservant about myself. I have abnormally large shoulders and chest, with bones like a bison maybe. Numerous times, particularly in high school, other guys drew those to my attention and not too kindly. One football player insisted that I was always inflating my chest and sucking in my gut to look bigger. Others asked if family members were built like that. My sports were first wrestling and then swimming. Neither, especially the latter, did anything to hide my upper body.

That acknowledged, let’s get down on Cindy McCain and body image.

Pix tricks: Click on a thumbnail for a larger view. This opens in the same window, so use your browser’s back button or command to return.

Following a Vogue photo feature this year, many have made much (particularly women) of her saying she wears a size zero jeans. That brings up it own issues:caroljohn.jpg

  1. Sizes vary from manufacturer and store. When you can find a size 8, it is much bigger in a store that sells to wealthy women. They don’t mind such pretense.
  2. Size zero means no butt to speak of. That suggests either an extreme ectomorphic somatotype or the lack of hormones to produce such secondary sexual characteristics as breasts and hips.
  3. The myth and social meme that one can’t be too thin is flat (so to write) wrong. Nancy Reagan, whom many women said they admired for her build, has long suffered from anemia. She’s thin more by chemical imbalance than choice.
  4. The destructive and anti-feminist marketing of women as lithe, even boy-like objects doesn’t help them and makes me wonder about men who would seek them.
  5. John McCain left one thin wife, a swimwear model in the 1960s, for his current one. He returned from imprisonment in Vietnam to find Carol (shown with him in good times) had been in an extreme car wreck. After numerous operations, she was chubby and four inches shorter. Forget that he was also on crutches, couldn’t raise his arms, and was a mental mess. He saw her and was shortly out of there — for another scrawny model type.

cmlong.jpgA media manipulated meme is that squeeze (but don’t crush) number two, Cindy, is gorgeous. We can set aside as reasonable disagreements of taste that some people, men and women, like to look at undeveloped and emaciated looking women. I’m not in that camp, obviously.

However, as someone with his own physical anomalies, I find myself reveling in Cindy’s startlingly obvious major defect. Her neck just screams for attention, and not of a good type.

A few giraffe-necked or swan-necked women trade on the trait as elegant and graceful. Cindy knows better. Consider her multiplicity of pretty successful distractions and cover-ups as below.
Not every ploy is a winner though. Beads, even huge ones, don’t necessarily hide or distract. Low-cut or open tops down to her undersized attributes and no pecs don’t either. She’s best when she turns to turtlenecks.cmlevy.jpg

Yesterday’s Daily Show even had brief fun with Cindy’s cervical tricks at the end of this clip. Jon said that in response to Hurricane Gustav, Cindy has brought “…her very own neck levies. Nothing’s getting past these bad boys!”

So, we can praise Cindy for sparing us the overt disclosure of freakish anatomy. She clearly is aware of the problem and does what she can.

It remains amusing though that the media seem so intent on portraying her as highly attractive, even beautiful. She does carry the trappings — clothes, makeup, hair color, jewelery — for the conventional checklist. On the other hand…

I’m not all politics and religion.