Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Pulse-Pounding Thrill-Ride -- I Loved It!

I've self-published a collection of short stories written in the 1990s that I think you'll like. You know who you are. Buy it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yes, Cold Enough for Me, Thanks for Asking

Debarking after a grind across the ice on the good ship West New York out of Newburgh.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Who YOU Lookin' at?

If the west bank of the Hudson were in high school, it wouldn’t be sitting in the front row raising its hand and calling out the answers. Or wearing an argyle sweater. It’d be lurking in the back of the room if it showed up at all, but it’d be just as likely to be smoking a cigarette at the Log. The west bank’s dad worked in the school and if you talked back to the west bank’s dad, the west bank would follow you home and kick your ass. The west bank learned to drive at 14. You know what? The east bank wouldn’t even be in the public school, it’d go to the Witherspoon Academy or someplace, and it would get chased home from the bus stop on the chauffer’s day off. Guidance counselors would think that the west bank was acting out because it was frightened of the pressure to hold back the water of the river and didn’t want to look weak – that it had built, in effect, a gigantic wall of basalt against weakness – but the west bank wouldn’t care less about the water and would look the guidance counselor defiantly in the eye and say something sarcastic in response to anything the guidance counselor said. And go back to playing Sabbath covers in its friend’s garage.

After graduation, though, the west bank of the Hudson would go into the landscaping business and would get to know all the cops by first name and would be able to build a solid deck, not to mention the house it attached to. It would enlist in the Army, maybe even get lucky and get a few recommendations together and go into officer’s training, or it might try a couple years of community college and open a no-nonsense bar, or apprentice to an electrician, or become a lawyer. It would marry the east bank of the Delaware and they’d have a canal together. And it would eventually run for office, something local, respectable, and win. One day, the west bank of the Hudson would look around and realize it was 18,000 years old, and maybe it had actually grown up some.

But when they got together to talk about the zoning laws over a good local beer and an ice-cold Riesling, the west bank of the Hudson would slap the loafered east bank of the Hudson on the back companionably, and the east bank would flinch, chuckle nervously, and make sure its glasses were still straight.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Going Small

Written in May 2006, before the move. Still holds up.

It turns out that my wife and I are radicals. We may seem like ordinary suburban commuters expecting a second child, but we are doing the unthinkable: we’re downsizing. Next month we’ll be moving from a modestly-sized home — by today’s McMansion standards — to a 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom cottage. To some, it’s an oversized dollhouse.

It made perfect sense to us, but our colleagues, friends, families, neighbors and realtor all thought we’d misspoken: “You mean a larger house, right?”

Some of them are actively worried about us.

Although living in a smaller house is a healthy environmental strategy, I admit that we’re mostly buying smaller for financial reasons; this house is cheaper than the one we live in now. It’s got more character, too – built in 1915, its proportions and stone foundation embody an early 20th century aesthetic. It’s in a great location. We love the town. And did I mention it’s cheaper?

To our people, however, we seem a little tetched. Despite the growing voices of progressive environmentalists, the heaviest weight of society is still against personal downsizing. The accepted trajectory at our age is to Go Big: our exurban neighbors pursue bigger houses, more land, larger TVs with louder speaker systems, and bigger Hummers to drive to BJ’s for bulk-pak potato chips while wolfing down super-sized fast-food meals and gallons of soda. If it’s not stuff, it’s money – who wants to earn less next year? If it’s not money or stuff, it’s prestige. My kid is the highest scorer, my office is bigger than yours, I oversee the largest department. Mothers and fathers compare their children's height, weight and cranial circumference – ostensibly checking to make sure they’re within a healthy range, but secretly proud of any numerical edge. If it’s not money, stuff, or prestige, it’s quantified experience – bagging the most peaks, shooting the biggest bear. And as you get older, it had all better get bigger, or you’re a failure.

It is an insidious and attractive dynamic. You need only look at a tape measure or a speaker wattage or a bank statement to know precisely where you stand. But quality becomes meaningless: when you’re racing to die with the most toys, you don’t have time to care whether they’re any good.

Even more disheartening than that cheapening of taste is the poverty of opportunity that comes with oversizing. Put simply: the less space you take up, the more there is to explore.

Einstein said “the environment is everything that is not me.” To expand on that, the world I can reach out to, learn, and revel in is everything that is not already in my house. This isn’t an abstract concept. It’s not even about ecology. For instance, our new home sits on a third of an acre – a generous lot by most measures, but half the size of the one we’re selling. Next door is the public library and a big park with baseball fields, pools and a playground. If every private lot around the park was double its current size, there would be no park. It would all just be…yards. I suppose someone would have the biggest one by a few inches, but you couldn’t play baseball.

Every ounce of surplus food I don’t purchase and consume could theoretically find its way to a mouth that needs it. Every time my car fits in a single parking space, someone else gets to go to the movies. For every ten square feet of space that my new house doesn’t encompass, ten square feet of the planet remains available.

Some of the people who question us choose to live bigger, but they are intelligent and self-aware, raise great kids, care about their neighbors and value open space. It’s just that one summer I lived in a tent for six weeks; I spent another summer in a car. Eleven hundred square feet is big enough for the four of us.

Physics tells us that the universe is finite but unbounded. So external space, be it the earth’s surface or my neighborhood, can get too crowded, too congested — too full of me — and thus needs to be conserved. I suspect that the space within — within my family, within my friendships, within my spirit and my mind – is bounded but infinite. I aspire to find out.

Will we huddle together on tiptoe, sacrificing all comfort and sense of place to leave the smallest possible footprint? No. To live is to assert one’s presence. But to live compactly, efficiently – to live Big Enough – is a moral goal and an increasingly less radical one. And to live Big Enough while in pursuit of quality – that sounds like a sweet life to me.

That Twitching in Your Thigh is Probably Guilt Because of Something You Did

A while ago Clive Thompson at collisiondetection blogged about "ringxiety" and phantom cellphone ringtones. Like many people, I hear those all the time, but I also experience numerous instances of phantom vibrations, where my thigh will ring and I try to answer it. I mentioned this at work, and three colleagues said they get them too. Planning to post something about it here, I leapt to the Internet to employ the Google™ Web-search service as a handy way to check my idea for originality. Let’s just say I’m not the first to notice this phenomenon.

Anyone else? I’m sure that non-existent radiation the communists are always talking about is completely harmless. Spasming muscles burn calories!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Being a Short Disquisition on the Life Cycle of the Cocoanut, Cocos nucifera

I've had my eye on a particular coconut palm for the past four years or so. You know the one. It grows next to the fence at the pool at the housing development in Florida where we go swimming once a year.

So we went this week, and there it was, big as life, giant green nads (I'm no botanist) hanging all over it. I bided my time, lazing about in the water, very pale, watching the Boy swim, helping to dandle the baby's toes in the water. But the palm knew the jig was up.

There was a slump of retirees (you know: a sloth of bears, a murder of crows, a trip of hipsters? How about a slump of retirees?) on the other side of the pool. Presumably they had some ownership stake in the tree I was about to defile. But they were slow. So by the time they could react, I had already twisted off the largest nut (not really a nut, it turns out, more of a fibrous drupe), feeling like a shoplifter, and had hightailed it out to the car.

Truth be told, I wasn't even sure it was a coconut. It was green, for one thing, and in these past several years I'd never seen the tree with your standard brown hairy nads (again, see note on botany, above) on it. So I wasn't sure. Back at the compound, I gouged the thing repeatedly with a steak knife until liquid came out.

By the way, for any scientists reading this: that's how it's done, lads.

I sipped the liquid and, while not terrible, it was boring, so I spit it out. Then I threw the split-open fruit into the bushes, wondering just how coconuts worked. But not wondering enough to find out.

Then I retrieved it and photographed it with a glass of simulated coconut water* alongside to give the lay public a sense of the volume of liquid it had discharged. Then, and only then, was my Florida mission complete.

We returned to snow.


*tap water & milk

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Esprit d'Internet

“Don’t hire people – buy tools,” a friend said to me recently. I’m writing on the train right now, about two weeks later, and the perfect response just came to me. You might want to get comfortable for this, maybe grab a glass of your favorite beverage. Ready? Here it is.

“Tools don’t install baseboard moldings, people install baseboard moldings.”

Whoa! Sorry about that – I’ll give you a minute to clean the Ovaltine and snot off your keyboard and let you blow your nose. Better? Good. Now, you see why that was so funny? Because it works on two levels. First, it’s true. And second, it cleverly references that NRA gun commercial, the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people with guns” thing. Or whatever they say to sell all those guns.

All I’m saying is, I shouldn’t be around tools.

I’ve got a truckload of respect for the plumb line and the level and the miter box and the router and the saws (crosscut, rip, table, jig, hack), the hammers (pneumatic and manual), tape measures, pliers, wrenches, drivers, prybars, caulks, adhesives, paints, trowels, vises, shims, screws, nails, nuts, bolts and chisels that make a man a man. Hell, you know that. My problem is that I misplaced the tube of sticktuitiveness I was using to finish the soap-dispenser installation project, and without that I can’t even think of starting on the baseboard thing. Sure, I’ll a run a marathon, but that’s because there’s food at the end. Fixing stuff? Nah. Wrong guy. If I had been with Dorothy and we found the Tin Man, he would have died.

This is especially difficult to admit in my town, where the fifty percent of men who are not contractors are, in fact, also contractors. Our neighbor very kindly gave us a swing set his boys had outgrown, but it’s been sitting out there disassembled because the ideal spot for it happens not to be level. I told our generous neighbor that I was planning to shorten the supports on one side and he got very alarmed — even though, you know, it would take a saw, which I thought was quite the burly thing to do.

“No, no, you don’t want to do that,” he said. “You gotta dig down.”

“But it’s bedrock.”

“I gotta pick!” he started toward his Tool Dungeon.

I immediately thought how great it would be to drive a couple hours in a direction away from the pick and the Pick Project. Next thing we knew – woop! – we were on Long Island, studiously not engaged in backbreaking labor of uncertain utility. (Look, I own a pickaxe, too – you can’t really live up here and not have a few tools – I just don’t like using it, especially on my precious, precious bedrock.)

I started this off intending to talk about the baseboards. Or, rather, the bases. There are no “boards” attached presently – we took ’em off when we moved in and got the floors fixed (good people helped us do that – I drove to Home Depot a lot for them) and haven’t yet mustered the will to get new ones (the old ones? crappy).

Which brings me to my next rejoinder, this one to myself: People don’t install baseboard moldings either, if you can’t afford to pay them.

Monday, January 15, 2007


There were numerous tributes to Mr. Levine in today's paper, as well as a simple obituary printed on the usual page. I read it last, more and more weighed down by the weekend's events with each line.

Then I glanced at the page opposite. There was a headline that said "Celebrate Life." Ah, yes, the upcoming Celebrate Life Half Marathon. I ran it last year. It was one of my best races. It benefits a group called CROC -- Citizens Reunited to Overcome Cancer. It was cancer that took our family friend. Early Sunday morning, a running buddy had offered to train with me for this year's race, but I didn't think I had time.

And now there it was, right there across from the obituary, in fancy script: "Celebrate Life." I was tired, and thought something like yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, celebrate THIS. Except that underneath the headline, in the center of the page, directly opposite Mike Levine's portrait, was a picture of me, running.

Guess I should run it again, huh? Ya think?


In the one long conversation I ever had with him, a wise man once asked me what my ideal job was. I’d never really considered the question in precisely that simple a way; any time I’d tried before, the chorus of roadblocks would drown out the vision before it could even form. So he asked me, and I thought about it, and pushed aside doubts and realism and drafted a fantasy version of how I’d like to spend my days. I’ve kept it, and kept it in mind. And although some of the roadblocks are real, in that I need to feed people and I enjoy the furor of my job, there are elements in that dream vision that I have chased in the two years since he and I spoke. One of those, for instance, was starting a blog.

This weekend a family friend – one of my wife’s contemporaries – passed away too young and with too much yet to do. We drove three hours to the funeral, returning through fog, rain and traffic with children in tow, arriving exhausted and burdened with sadness that clung to us all. I picked up the paper on the front step and brought it in, opened it and was further saddened to read of the passing of that wise man. In a very real way, Mike Levine taught me to dream a little.

May they both rest in peace. I’ll try not to waste the lesson.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Few Inches High and Rising

I wrote this a couple months ago. Updates to follow.

Last week, west of here about an hour’s drive, a few people died in massive floods brought on by days and days of rain. Ditches became creeks, creeks became rivers, and rivers became angry gods unappeased, taking lives as they saw fit. In a town called Livingston Manor, a young girl was killed when her house collapsed around her as she waited for rescue.

Our cellar got a few inches of water. We’re up above the river valleys – to our west is Moodna Creek and to our east, of course, the Hudson. Not far below our cellar floor there’s a bed of shale – flaky, fractured, non-absorbent – that acts as a subterranean creek bed for the jillions of gallons that fall on the northern slopes of the highlands. I’ve decided to start thinking of our cellar as a beautiful woodland pool in a chattering brook – lower in the dry season, but always a home for a fat trout or two, with a nicely sheltered eddy beneath a rock where the damsel flies might rest for a moment and make for an easy hors d’oeuvre. At the bottom of this pool is a sump pump.

The sump pump is by Rigid Zoeller and I have to give those people credit – it’s a workhorse. The thing could suck an Olympic-sized pool dry before Mark Spitz could swim across it. (Insert your own chrome/trailer hitch suggestion here.) It works fast, and it works reliably, and it works – oh, check this out, apparently it works with electricity.

Interesting thing about our new town. You know how, in Baghdad, the power just…goes out? That’s us! Only the nearest artillery is a few miles away and not, presumably, aimed at our infrastructure. No, here it’s something like a combination of laziness, bureaucratic incompetence, old equipment and stupidity that accounts for – I’m almost embarrassed to say it – six outages since we moved in three weeks ago.

You can see where this is going, right? Here’s a tip for the homeowner: If your cellar floods and requires a sump pump, and the previous owner has the place wired for a generator and tells you to buy one, and you recognize that thunderstorms can knock out electric power, and the town where you’ve moved loses power when, you know, the wind blows, just buy a generator. That’s what I did.

I mean that’s what I did after I bailed the cellar with a bucket for 40 minutes – after the storm left, after the sun came out, while the creek ran merrily into my sump bucket downstairs and slowly filled the woodland pool I mistakenly think is my cellar – until the point of defeated exhaustion. And when you’re exhausted and defeated, there’s no place like Home. Depot.

Trying to keep ahead of a flood doesn’t make sense to me. Johnny Cash singing “how high’s the water, Mama?” is supposed to be coming out of my iPod, on the train, while I’m heading to work in New York City, not coming out of my brain while I’m running up and down through the Bilco doors to toss another paltry two gallons into the yard where it’ll just seep back in and get bailed again later. It’s fairly serious – the hydrology of the cellar is such that it can fill right on up to the sill if given a chance, thus losing the oil burner, the hot water heater and both electric panels, before finding a way out that will involve some serious erosion under the walls.

We bought a generator, connected a hose with an anti-backflow valve to our sump pump outlet and steered the water down the driveway instead of through our downstream neighbor’s sunken living room. I put a fan downstairs to dry out the floor.

The generator’s kind of complex to start, and you have to be home and you have to know the power’s out and you have to have some kind of idea what the water flow situation is like (it’s a crapshoot really – could be running, maybe not).

But no one died here this week.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Good Eeeeevening

There’s a run I do around here, often really early in the morning. It’s a 3.5-mile loop out the driveway, through the village, up into the hills, along a ridge, and back down. In mid-winter, since I’m off to the ferry at 6:35, I run this loop in the dark.

Oh, sure, we’ve got bears around here, and there aren’t so many houses up on the ridge. In addition to a healthy reserve of laziness and a tendency toward procrastination, I can add fear. But the other morning I woke and the full moon was still well up, the sky was clear, and it was about thirty degrees above average for the date. I grabbed a small flashlight and lit out.

As I chugged up the long hill toward the ridge, I came upon a couple out for a stroll, and a solo woman walking a little way behind them. We all came abreast at the same time – in the last hours of a full moonlit night, in the middle of the woods, on a country road with no houses in sight.

“This is nice,” I said as I passed through the mini-crowd. “Everyone out getting their exercise.”

“Well, we have to go to work,” said one of the women. We all chuckled in understanding. I continued uphill. A couple of minutes later, as I reached the ridgetop, three guys out for their morning run passed me going the other direction. The moon rode high over the valley to the west, where everyone's lights were, naturally, off.

I’ve been having trouble pegging the vibe – it’s between the Ave Maria nuns at the end of the Fantasia version of “Night on Bald Mountain,” or something zombirific out of Stephen King maybe…or Tom Waits’ nighttime peregrinations in Down By Law. Maybe Dave Attell will be out with a camera crew for my next run, I don’t know. I guess it’s not insane if everyone’s doing it.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The journey of a thousand miles begins with defrosting the windshield then driving to the ferry

I'm looking for an HTML tag that will say X-TREEM in that phlegmy cookie-monster voice they use in car commercials and wrestling and — what, I don't know — ATV ads, so that I can accurately describe my commute. Maybe with a little echo -- but not too much echo. I wouldn't want to overstate the case. My commute is only the second-longest in the nation.

Why? Maybe it's something about me. I did live in a car one summer, driving someplace new every day. Yeah, and I remember now I always longed to be a nomad, that must be it, I'm descended from some tribe of itinerant editors who navigated the alleys of olde Shiteburgh looking for jobs and grammatical errors. As a lad, they would often find me waiting for trains in inappropriate places, “briefcase” (usually a clump of leaves or bark) in hand, pensively tapping my foot and looking at my “watch” (often, sadly, just my bare wrist). And when no train appeared, how I would sigh and go back to reading my “newspaper” (usually the NY Post).

As whines go, “I have the second-longest average commute in America” is not quite up there with “I’m from Staten Island,” which means that, after you endure the nation’s actual first-longest average commute, you still might get killed. And even if you make it, you're home...on Staten Island. Nor is my twice-daily trip as harrowing as a train ride out to ol’ Sucat, but if you're used to being coddled and if no one throws excrement at you on even your worst days, two hours by car-boat-train-train-foot, twice a day, can start to wear down even the most stalwart traveler.

Of course, then there’s this feller, who is probably on the road this very second and feeling pretty stupid now that the prize money’s all been converted to carbon and fumes. I'll bet he's pounding on the steering wheel and screaming at someone blocking an intersection.

It's amazing what we'll do to get to work...but I suppose it's all worth it if you love your job.