Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Laying this Hammer Down

My neighbor Pete Seeger once told the musician Josh Ritter "the most important thing you could ever do is to choose a place and dig in."

I've done the first part, but I've fallen behind on the second part. So I'm taking a break of indeterminate length from Exurbitude.

This past weekend, I went away to San Francisco to see how much farther blogging could take me, and while I was gone the garden went batshit crazy. The tomatoes got heavy with fruit, reared up and fell over, deer ate practically all the leaves off the pumpkins, and the cilantro started to self-sow. My kids got larger. The tolerant, generous, dedicated woman who loves me went to the meeting for the new food co-op, and she introduced the clothesline I put in last week to its first set of fresh laundry. She sent me a picture of the sun shining on our lives.

Of all the things I learned in San Francisco, the one that applies here is that blogging differs from writing, which I’ve been doing all along. Blogging demands more, and writing is just the centerpiece to a world of commenting, flickring, twittering, emailing…what we call building virtual community.

I’ve found incredible people in that community (see partial list at left). And thank you all who are reading this for being part of it, and for your indulgence. But it also turns out that I live in a community. It’s made up of people I like and don’t like, resemble and don’t resemble, agree and disagree with, and whom I can look in the eye and argue with at a meeting, but keep it civil because later I’ll run into them at the convenience store. I haven’t been engaging my community properly, either.

At the BlogHer conference last weekend, there was a panel on following your passion in which everyone agreed that the lamest Internet thing you could do was to raise up your fist and walk off the blogging stage with a grand, gestural post. Eye roll. So I'm not doing that; I don't swear to be gone for all time. My five year old — who found his first loose tooth tonight — says things like "forever." I don't.

Ahhhh, who am I kidding? The grand gesture ROCKS. Anyone needs me, I'll be tending the garden.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Moving the Goats

The bait: BBQ at our friends' house. The switch: "Can you help us move the goats?"

I've mentioned these friends before. They live in a large house a couple of towns away, the sort of voluminous newly-built home on a grand scale that has frequently been the subject of derision in this space, but which in their hands feels truly homey. Although the woman of the house calls it the "Plastic Palace," it's been the site of some lovely small gatherings and warm conversation. And they have a freezer full of venison donated by their oil guy. And hell, the man of the house is a Brit, the good kind--he even gets to wear a funny wig and a black robe, like, officially--and they have a kid named after a working man's folk hero, while the lady of the house is worldly and writes for a travel blog and if these two want a McMansion well then let 'em have it.

Another thing you can't argue with is the way they engage with the large meadow that surrounds it. They borrowed goats from a farm up the road.

As we drove up the long dirt driveway across this long expanse of meadow, we noticed that the portable paddock had been moved around to one of the overgrown areas in front of the house. No camera, of course, but the juxtaposition of the two goats (one black, one white), the chest-high weeds, the thick metal tubing of the fence, and the stately home with its Palladian windows and stone facing was quite something.

We entered and had our white wine, natch, and chatted about this and that, and admired the rosemary-covered chickens roasting on the rotisserie on the deck, then our friend casually said that the farmer had called and asked them to rotate the livestock. In other words, pick up the paddock sections and move them to an uneaten portion of the meadow and get the goats back inside.

Naturally the males of the group -- the risk management consultant, the marketing professional, the architect, the college student -- began ritual primate displays and paraded outside (after another fortifying Sauvignon Blanc) to show these beasts who was boss.

It took a humbling half hour, not so much to move the fence sections, but to persuade Mushroom, the more capricious of the two goats, to get back into the pen once we'd moved it. Lured by white bread, the much more tame Seven had wandered in directly. No, the funny bit was each of us trying in turn to get Mushroom's attention or herd Mushroom or persuade Mushroom to go to her home. Things goats don't respond to: clicking sounds, claps, whistles, kissing noises, their name, injunctions to "come on" delivered while slapping both thighs and bending forward. Walking toward a recalcitrant goat may cause a rearing, snorting, and suggestive horn-flinging in the direction of the walker, who, if he is a white-collar professional wearing a polo shirt, will step back in some confusion and utter a single "I say!"

We finally hit on the plan of opening the section of the pen nearest Mushroom really wide, and she walked in.

That morning at the organic farm I'd been talking to one of the local agitators, a man who refurbishes old houses and turns them into sustainable businesses, who railed against one village's unwillingness to envision a future that didn't depend entirely on oil; a self-sufficient future, with local jobs, local food sources, local culture, local commerce. We talked up over and around it for a while then said seeya, and later that evening I found myself moving a goat pen in front of a McMansion with my educated, citified, worldly friends before stepping inside to a delicious dinner and highbrow conversation.

If we're lucky and we plan right, moving the goats is the future. I certainly hope it -- or something like it -- is in my future. Because many of the alternatives are a lot worse.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Encounters with the Wildlife

There's a screen in the upstairs bathroom window, but there are these gnats that have evolved to be small enough to fit through its apertures because they derive some unexplained biological benefit from flitting around on the ceiling, just above the wall sconce, until they die and fall into it. There is a local legend that every time the sconce fills up with the carcasses of dead gnats, a doughty Viking warrior who long ago lost an ill-advised bar bet comes back from the dead, trudges into the house and up the stairs, tears the sconce from the wall and drains it in a single hearty draught, burps, places the sconce gently on the edge of the sink, and calls his friend Larry's brother-in-law who "[can] totally rewire shit."

The day before I caught the pike, my brother and I were fishing for pickerel from the canoe. Nearby, the lilypads began moving of their own accord, spreading apart as though making way for an invisible bride walking upon the water. As I crossed myself and shook my charm bracelet, my brother looked UNDER that water and spotted the snapping turtle. We both peered at it in the shallows, remarking that its mighty legs alone would serve as hams, while its garbage-can-lid-sized shell would make an ideal garbage can lid. So imagine a garbage can lid balanced on four hams, but it's, like, swimming. I wish I had a picture, but the snapping turtle consumed the very idea of my camera before I even thought it -- which is just how big that turtle was.

Next day, I caught my first northern pike. You know, you're just sitting there dangling bits of colored plastic decorated with needle-sharp bent metal barbs into the water and a fucking fish bites your shit. When animals attack, right?

Various deer. Constantly.

Mouse in the grill. Covered that.


Some roadkill.

Oh, right, this morning. They've repaved the parking lot at the office park where I work, and this morning there was a security guard on the hot tar, standing watch over a "snapping turtle" -- I have to put it in quotes because of that one I saw in the Adirondacks last week -- as it crossed from god-knows-where to wherever-the-hell.

I was tucking my son in tonight when I saw a yellowjacket sitting on his window sill, slowly undulating one antenna. I picked up North Dakota, gathered my courage, and thwapped it. It crackled like evil rice krispies. I still don't know if it was actually already dead, or paralyzed or something, but still, the bravery.

Just then I heard the heavy tread of a Viking on the stairs.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Making Do

Imagine my delight when I opened the grill the other morning and found this little guy:

I was especially surprised at the amount of meat we got off him.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Walking Fool

In 2001, my friend Mark started walking from New Jersey to California. Several months later, in Sioux Falls, SD, he decided he was finished with the heat and mosquitoes, and came back to New York.

This March he set out again. I got a call from him tonight outside of Bancroft, Nebraska, and he wanted you all to know he was doing very well, but wouldn't mind a cool drink of water from friendly strangers now and then.

Please to visit his site and read his blog, then tell your Nebraskan friends to keep a friendly eye out, and wish him well. Someday you'll get to see the full documentary, the quality of which can be deduced from the trailer he made for a filmed version of his first trip.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Taking Out the Garbage

Our household waste goes into a bunch of piles.
  • Compost
  • Glass, plastic, metal
  • Cardboard, paper
  • Back to the diaper service
  • Traditional garbage -- paper towels/tissues, packaging, non-compost food waste
  • The corpses of those who would call us self-righteous and smug

So what's actually great about this is that I get to go outside a lot, where the animals dwell. It's not that we're BETTER than anyone else. Anyone who clogs our landscape -- and the children, and freedom -- with cigarette butts, Schlitz cans, old stuffed animals, etc., is perfectly fine with me. I just like making piles. And if every time I wash out a dirty cloth diaper it makes the Virgin Mary smile, so much the better.

I can't believe I'm going to post this, but I checked in the bucket of things to say and it was empty except for this post. You have my apologies. Do check back sometime, wouldya?

UPDATE: You deserve better. Here's something from the commute:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Did You Guys See That Year Go By?

A year ago I left the world's oldest international auction house for the last time and embarked on a new job. Not sure if I'm calculating this correctly, but I think I've saved 25 days' worth of commuting time. Which would explain why my kids look so much older; I've jumped ahead a month!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Chips off the old block

My wife and I were driving a babysitter home not long after we'd moved up to this town from the other town to the south, and as we passed the country club where I'd married a beautiful, intelligent, progressive and funny woman one time, I saw a white-spotted pink boulder nestled in a stone wall.

"Rebecca," I said to the babysitter. "Do you know what kind of rock that is?"

Rebecca did not. Not because she wasn't smart, but because there was really no reason for a 16-year-old girl to know anything about Schunnemunk conglomerate, not unless she wore thick braids and coke-bottle glasses and played English horn and collected bugs, and these things Rebecca did not do.

Nevertheless, for a couple of minutes — as long as I harangued her about the distinctive rock, which is found nowhere else in the region and appears only in smaller patches in northern New Jersey — she was edified on the subject. Schunnemunk conglomerate. Doubtless she forced the mineral out of her mind as quickly as possible upon arriving home (home, which was back in the town we'd lived in earlier; this was before we'd integrated into our new digs, when the people of our new town still called us city folk and threw kittens into our well) by listening to that M&M and that Molly Cyprus woman or watching Dancing with the Chef.

This is what it looks like, and this is where it comes from.

Schunnemunk is a long narrow ridge, recently named a state park, that is ribboned with trails and rattlesnakes. That scene in Michael Clayton, when Clooney runs away from the burning car? He runs up the northern terminus of the Jessup Trail, which continues for about ten miles along the ridge. Also up there are the Dark Hollow, the Sweet Clover, the Long Path, and the trail up High Knob. At the high points where the soil doesn't cling, this peculiar pink stone larded with quartz shows itself between the pine scrub. It's a tacky-colored puddingstone, mauve, from the late Devonian, when such things were in fashion.

Here's where a better or worse writer might go for the metaphor. Certainly the territory is rich: remember, we're driving past the site of our wedding, the stones of this mountain are made up of these tiny quartz moments embedded in sandstone, and the whole ridge — a 3,000-foot thick cap of conglomerate atop earlier Devonian deposits — is highly durable and resistant to the elements. People have used the stone for centuries around these parts, and it has made its way from town to town. There's a millstone made from it beside a pond in Monroe; chunks of the rock are mixed in with the local gneiss in the stone planters outside the Town Hall in Highland Mills; Central Valley's got it in spades. Like the bits of quartz in their sandy matrix, pieces of Schunnemunk are embedded in the lives of the people who live in this region.

A better or worse writer might say that it is like my wife and me, this slightly tacky but useful stone, comprising sand and fire, part of the earth of these valleys; sometimes slightly invisible to the residents, but slowly incorporating into the local fabric.

But what a better or worse writer might not realize is that there's no excuse for boring a high school junior with her whole life ahead of her so badly that her eyes wander to the distant horizon, over the ridge she doesn't even see anymore, to dream of a place — far, far away from this town and the aging nerd in the front seat, babbling about rocks — from which she will never want to return.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Meeting the Internet

The last couple of months have seen several in-person meetings with actual live bloggers. (Not actual live-bloggers, although some of them might do that if witness to something fascinating, or if they had a cell phone, a restroom and a Twitter account. Because they're addicts.) Big bloggers, regular ones, all of them very talented and incredibly good looking. And here's the weird thing: like the runners I'm privileged to know, they all seem to be decent people who support one another in their endeavors and who don't politicize the dynamic or judge you for your skill or your reactions or your thinning hair. I know that's not everyone's experience, but I'm new here.

It was natural that I'd combine the two pursuits sooner or later, so when I read on the Internet that Heather B. was running 5k's I thought "oh, I'll have to invite her down for a run sometime this summer," and as I thought that I passed a big banner for the first annual 5k at a local church, and I thought "yeah, I'll have to remember to find a race that makes sense and email her," and then I ran over a guy painting arrows to mark the course and I thought "yeah, if there were only a race of the correct distance nearby, I could totally invite her" and then I crashed my car into the race director and said "duh! I could invite her to this race! The one that starts about a foot from my driveway!" And naturally, having read her blog, seen her photos, read her Twitters and met her once, my next thought was "what kind of booze should I use as bait?"

I needn't have bothered with the booze: she never hesitated from the moment I suggested a run. An excellence of spirit and openness to new experience seem to be what Heather B. is all about, and I now know that "No pasa nada" translates to "yeah, I'm in." So she came down, refused mojitos and had some wine, got up completely game, and ran that race like an absolute pro with a form-perfect kick for the last fifty yards that was grace itself.

I made eggs, but didn't serve mimosas. Then Heather offered (ahem, for the record) to watch our kids for an hour when we announced that we had an appointment, which I had sort of neglected to mention. But after that lapse in good hosting, THEN, we took her to watch Polly turn seven, which is not something you see every day, I don't care what kind of fancy blogger you are.

Friday, June 13, 2008

$1m Ideas: Niche Social Media & Retiring "Wooooo"

I was writing an email earlier and started describing this novel I'm listening to on the CD, when it occurred to me that I should just put my impressions on Goodreads, where my correspondent would still see them, and I wouldn't have to go to the trouble of re-keying my opinion every time I wanted to tell it to someone. It then occurred to me: why not continue the fragmentation of subject-specific social media sites to the point of utter absurdity? For instance (and I'm sure these URLs are already taken, but obviously for the wrong reasons):

If you want to… then visit… and…
tell someone what you’re doing update your status for your followers.
recommend a moving book apply five stars to your latest read.
seek sympathy during your kids’ illnesses update the phlegm volume monitor and color chart.
describe an argument with your S.O. create a graph of how many times that jerk said "you're pronouncing it wrong."
proclaim allegience to your local professional sports franchise log in to your home field and place a fanpoints wager on the big game.
discuss the way you feel when you see your child succeed at something new use the big hammer to hit the pride bell, which causes ring.wav to launch on your followers’ pages.
let your professional connections know about your latest project complete the “What are you working on?” field.
note that you’ve found a weird bruise on your leg, but can’t remember bumping it on anything build-a-bruise™ using a color palette in yellows, purples and browns while your friends rate your injury with up to five(!) ice-packs.
extend this joke any farther the comments link do it there.


Can we please stop screeching "Woooooo?" It's embarrassing. I recommend that "Woooo" be replaced with a simple humming sound. How majestic that would be as it swelled over the crowd at the parade, sports event, or concert.

How old I must be.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Do Not Read This Post

Because there's a giant spider in it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Benchmarking: a Study in What Passes for Discomfort Among the Affluent

I’d never really encountered the word benchmarking until I came to my current job in the financial services industry. I’ve since warmed to it. Because it’s what I do all the time as I wonder just how other people are making it.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re making it. I’ve been told that enough times by enough people who know, and things are definitely more comfortable around here this year. I’m convinced, finally. But if we’re making it, why the pit in the stomach? Why the sense that we’re one room short of a full complement of rooms? Why do the ceilings seem a couple of inches too low and we powerless to change that?

I started writing this entry, then came up against the fact of our making it and had to cast my mind back, had to relocate my principles. Oh, that’s right: we chose it. A manifesto was perhaps written.

Once in a while, that rankles. The principles and justifications seem a little more elusive, a little less apparent. Are the kids just growing faster than we thought? Are the toy piles and innovative storage solutions (nooks, crannies) getting overfilled? Is it just the persistent sugar ants and nonresponsive exterminators that make us feel a hair below the comfort zone of privilege we feel we should inhabit? Hard to say. The people I meet, the bloggers I read, I want to know: how are they making it? It’s not about status per se. It’s more about the practicalities. "Look honey, that’s a one-income household but their ceilings are higher than ours!" It’s not about the high ceilings. It’s about the how. How do they have higher ceilings than ours?

If we’re making it, and we wanted higher ceilings, why do we have these low ones? I go back to our decisions, and realize again: we chose it. [Just squashed an ant.] Tonight, again, writing that first paragraph, I reran the math we ran when we sold the more expensive, larger house to purchase this 1,100 square foot one. I see what we did. I remember why. And I calm down a little.

But here’s the rub, for me: my fiscal conservatism is characterized more by fear of failure and pessimism than it is by frugality and intelligently converting money into more money.

So I benchmark, and it comes out like this: There are people with a near-innate self assurance. It comes across as street smarts, business savvy, negotiating skill. Sometimes there’s physical handiness. It combines tolerance for risk with an apparently willful lack of imagination regarding risk. Some of the least socially adept people I know have it. CEOs have it. It’s in the easy self-assurance of the lawyer, or the contractor, or the banker. It’s not just blind certainty; it’s that coupled with skill at mitigating risk. Many entrepreneurs have it—but it doesn’t seem prevalent in the more distant reaches of the cube farms. Sometimes those who possess this complex of traits actually fail, but I suspect they simply pick up and move on to the next project.

I haven’t got the gene. So what I DO have is a small old house whose purchase was very safe and which left us in pretty good shape for college down the road, PLUS a job in a cube, swoopy floors, little sugar ants, unfinished novels, a floody basement, poor air circulation, bats, and, sometimes, a sense that even this can’t last.

And that, friends, is what passes for making it. How are you making it?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Assembly Required


We have a neighbor – single mom to a four-year-old. She works full time, owns her house where she lives with her sister and the kid. She can install molding. She knows how to demo sheet rock and clean it up proper. Ceiling fan? She could do it.

She made fun of me this weekend because I chose to use an innovative technique to attach the front panel of my deerproof Plant Containment Unit to the body of the thing. She would have used a hinge. I went with the plastic zip ties. Because I moved AWAY from the upper east side, thank you very much, and I don’t need a hinge to open the damn thing. That’s what the can is for. I use another zip tie to close it.

I hope that when Lopsides crashes through her yard chewing on a cucumber, wrapped in chicken wire, the lashings and tomato stakes that make up my garden fence trailing from his farkakte antlers, that I am there to take a picture to share with you, O Internet.



In our town, on May 28th each year, the A/C Man comes through the main street on his great waggon that is drawn by four and twenty white oxen and piled to the canvas with the shiny bodies of sparkling new air conditioners. These his strapping sons heave down to the children of the town who give their tuppence to the sister, a barefooted redhaired girl in gingham who prances along with a tin pot for the money and who always keeps the change. The town children don’t seem to mind; it is the season. Hoisting their massive metal burdens to their narrow shoulders they stagger gamely home up the side streets on the hill, calling to their parents “Mother, Father, come see! It’s the Haier Koolblast ZX90! Do come, and bring baby Zillah, I’m sure she’d like to see her face reflected in its surface!” And the parents come, leading the little ones, who gurgle at the corrugated knobs and who must be chided for trying to lick the glistening side panels.

Then the Dads collect a few choice items and, with a prodigious will and profusion of sweat, take the window sashes out wrong, attach the brackets like a crazy person, slam the fucking thing into the godDAMN window frame, remove it because it’s WRONG, bend a couple of pieces of metal to fit around the projecting thing in the non-standard window, then carefully put…it…backDOWNONTHEIRMOTHERFUCKINGPINKY and finally shove a piece of plywood into the open space above, drive several screws into it haphazardly and assume they’ll figure it out in autumn. Fuck. They need a beer.

The A/C Man eats last fall’s thawed venison with the mayor and they laugh late into the night over a tankard of mead while watching Blazing Saddles on the TiVo. His children tend the air conditioners, making sure each has its ration of freon and straw, before they fall asleep under the wain, dreaming of sunshine and shade.



When the Chattanooga Iron Works closed down, the men walked the high-summer streets forlorn, their denim-ticking overalls picking up the red clay dust, until they came to Herd’s Garage. Clement Herd sat out front on a crate happy as a pig in shit and they stood around and one of them pulled out a mason jar half full and they passed it until finally someone said “Clem, why the hell are you so all-fired happy?” And Clem pulled out the blueprints for the cast iron and steel Char-Griller Super Pro Charcoal Grill/Smoker and all the men threw their caps in the air and they opened the shop that very week.

And, much later, I got one of those and I put it together. And I made this:

May all your parts fit snugly, and may all your washers be included in the original packaging this summer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer's Here. Time to Perspire.

Life is hard. Avoiding it shouldn't have to be.

Maybe this sounds familiar. You arrive at work, boot up your computer, get coffee, hit the john, make some cereal, reboot your computer, get another coffee, eat your cereal, wash your bowl, check your personal email, check your RSS feeds, check Twitter, get another coffee, check your work email, realize you're late to a 10:00 meeting, attend the meeting, check your personal email, check Twitter, check your work email, launch Word, launch Excel, launch Adobe Acrobat, close Excel, open the Word document you were working on last, check your personal email, go to lunch.

And before you know it, the whole day may have gone by with you slaving away accomplishing things, no one thanking you, the world still on its axis, and at 4:48 or so, when you start to pack up, you think "why am I knocking myself out like this?"

There's a better way.

You can slow down.

You can get more from each moment.

And a new blog, Perspire About the Little Things, can show you how.

Instead of the scene I've just painted, imagine instead that you arrive at work and then spend a few minutes staring off into space, reliving the commute. Instead of rushing to boot up your computer, maybe you take five minutes to retrace the steps your career has taken to get you to this point -- 9:05 on a Tuesday, seething over a cluttered desk, about to switch on your electronic overlord for another mind-numbing eight hour shift churning out money for other people. Or you take a little time to reflect on how the clerk at the little coffee stand put the lid on with the sip-flap directly over the seam in the cup...why do they always do that? Are they trying to make it dribble?

When you truly focus your attention on little things like these, time takes on new character. It passes more quickly, but you get less done. No more leaping from task to task like a chinchilla on bennies. No more rushing from room to room in your mind trying to straighten tottering piles of stacked information about products and services you don't understand. No. You are focused. Deliberate. Intentional.

Because Perspire gives you the tools you need to choose how you'll kill time. Simple tips, succinctly communicated. When you start reading Perspire About the Little Things regularly and put just one or two strategies into practice, you'll be amazed at the change you'll experience. And if you incorporate them all, you'll change your whole identity.

You'll never again have to wonder where the day went, or why the report on the Jenkins account still isn't up to date, or who was your biggest enemy at summer camp that one year. Because you Perspired, you'll always know where you stand, and you'll be able to look back at the blank periods in your day -- in your week, in your year -- and know that you decided how they should be spent.

On the little things.

You have the power to change. Start today, and check back on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rock Star

I didn't realize that we weren't going to finish the race until pretty late the day before. By that time I'd purchased the makings for a stellar Elvis belt -- rhinestones, glitter, pleather -- and was resolved to stick with the Presley troupe for most of the course.

Which is how it played out. We launched our shopping-cart barge into a sea of kooks, got treated like Kings for four and a half miles, then I changed into running gear and made my way to the beach, after the course was closed, through a couple of police barricades and past a surprising number of live bison. From the time I started I was the only one running. For a stretch I was the only one on my feet -- never have so many gotten so wasted for so little. I covered the last two miles solo, through Golden Gate Park's eucalyptus and pines, and was the last to cross the finish line as they dismantled it.

My knee didn't bother me once, nor the next day. I'm back, baby. Long live the King.

Pictures of me and the Elvis phenomenon and the race itself.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

World's Least Convincing Elvis

Please click the image to see the original, so I'm not just stealing it.

© 2008 Jérémy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Flowers in my hair. Thin flowers.

Tomorrow I follow in Mark Twain's footsteps and fly to San Francisco to visit friends and run the Bay to Breakers. While running, of course, I will be dressed as Elvis Presley, who disliked hippies, mostly, but did lots of drugs and sang about Love.

Mark Twain famously said, of the Bay to Breakers, "I think that much the most enjoyable of all races is a steamboat race; but, next to that, I prefer the gay and joyous mule-rush." He finished in 44:30, about a six-minute mile, and was so mad at not winning that he rent his gold lamé shad suit asunder and attended the after party in nothing but a boater, socks, and garters. Of that party, he said "It is not nakedness that gives the sense of immodesty, the modifying the nakedness is what does it." He then began attempting to get everyone else to take off their clothes, slurringly admonishing anyone who would listen that "Modesty antedates clothes and will be resumed when clothes are no more. Modesty died when clothes were born. Modesty died when false modesty was born." And everyone was pretty cool with that and several traditions were born.

Elvis, on the other hand, said of Mark Twain, "cats were born to give you acne," then stumbled into a completely disjointed version of "I've Got a Woman" before launching into his famous tirade against newspapers and newspapermen, particularly Twain. Presley's time in the Bay to Breakers was a sad showing in his later years; he finished his final race a full seven minutes slower than the PR of 50:36 set in 1952.

You can read about the race here. I would like to return to many comments lauding my time, whatever it may be.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Punchline: I get a speeding ticket

I used to tell the following joke when I was a kid, to virtually anyone who would come by. The first script I’d ever memorized: “Once there was this guy, and his plane was on fire. So he pulled the cord and nothing came out but strings. Then he pulled the emergency spoke and nothing came out but strings. Then this BIIIIG FAT moth flew by, and it said ‘I can’t believe I ate the whooooole thing.’ ”

So I’m driving to work Monday morning – because on what other day would this happen? – along the gently winding double-yellow-line road through the wealthy woodland suburbs of Westchester. This is my secret back way to work that avoids highways with the first name “I-”. It’s a perfectly driveable little road. Very nice, actually, with gentle slopes, plenty of visibility, and large houses on vast spreads set well back from the road behind sturdy stone walls.

Sort of in the middle portion of this back road there’s a speed zone where the limit is 25 miles per hour; a speed limit I’d thought was reserved for nursing-home parking lots or golf courses. Shoot, there are toll booths you’re allowed to roll through at faster than 25 miles per hour. But I gather the plutocrats of [REDACTED] don’t want non-Lexii to bypass the highways at the expense of their early-morning serenity. So 25 it is.

Now right in the center of this slow-mo zone, or slowmozone, as it will henceforth be called, is one of those gizmos that tells you how fast you’re going. I never read it, because who cares? But Monday morning, a mile past this gizmo, just at the clubhouse for the country club, there’s a cop standing at the side of the road, and he motions me to pull over.

And nothing. Came out. But strings.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Soda, Pop

I've been to the bar Soda two times. The first time was about a month ago, for the post-memorial drinks and Mac slideshow in honor of a departed friend, at which no eye was dry and no future seemed quite right to anyone in attendance, without him.

The second time was this past Wednesday, when a kind insider included me on an email announcing drinks and a book signing for Things I Learned About my Dad (in Therapy), where Heather Armstrong, her husband Jon, Alice Bradley, Doug French, Sarah Brown, and Greg Allen (whom I didn't meet...was he there?) would all be in attendance, sitting in a small circle, entertaining the occasional reader who dropped in with stories of human cannibalism, climbing K2, writing novels with q-tips dipped in the jet-black ink of the elusive Architeuthis hartingii, and raising toddlers.

It was sort of like that, toward the end. When I arrived, however, there was a line snaking through the room, the books were all sold out, people were waiting to have non-books signed, and clusters of people who'd already been signed were still settled into booths rehashing their experience. Heather and the others were clearly enjoying real, prolonged face-time with actual readers, and the process aspect of the meet and greet had stalled. I reached this conclusion as I stood aside, waiting to greet my friends in that tiny circle of celebrity: society has reached the point where there are bloggers who need "people." Make of that what you will. It was a little more settled at the end, although even then, when we headed off toward the next venue for this month's Cringe reading, at which Alice and her husband were to perform, Heather and Jon were still on the sidewalk in a scrum of fans. Time and again, the crowd turned un-anonymous, as some long-time reader, commenter or Goodreads connection came forward to one of these folks to say "oh hi, you sort of know me." Perhaps best of all, Heather B. was there to have beer and marvel at the madness.

In traffic, and recognition, and self-identification as a blogger, I am orbiting at the very outermost fringe of that crew. But I've had a couple of tastes of it recently, and there's definitely something there. Whatever that means, I know this: Soda will never be just a bar for this blogger.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Freeing up hard drive space

This weekend, five years after first buying a house, I went to Long Island to remove stuff from my old bedroom. In addition to the boxes of D&D materials, comic books, and letters with which I could not part, there were many items whose only value lay in their status as visual reminders of themselves. If that makes sense. So I took pictures of some of them, then set them free.

Then I posted the pictures on Flickr, natch.

Friday, May 2, 2008

So Much to Say, All of it About Spring, and I am Lazy at the Very Thought of it

Where to begin? First, my in-laws' neighbors are clearly harboring a fugitive Nazi (hello, Mike Godwin!).

I was driving the Lad to a playdate and got there early, so drove around a little more and saw a cooler with a sign posted reading "organic eggs, $4/doz." A week later, a food-conscious woman who eats with me brought home a dozen of them. They are multicolored and utterly fabulous. I have three books on raising chickens out of the library now.

I had dinner with very talented people in New York City and they made me feel like one of an elite tribe.

Recently we ate at Woody's, an all-natural, grass-fed, mostly local beef, all-local-produce burger joint in a nearby town and boy howdy let me tell you that you should go to Woody's, even if you're a vegeminarian, because they even have a portabello sandwich for which one might opt to die. The burgers themselves you will also offer to die for, but! You don't have to. Just pay.

We went to Florida.

There's much to be said about the books Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I've said a little something about each at

At the tail end of a shitty April, in which bad things befell wonderful people and we had a scare of our own, my sister had a son, and he is quite beautiful. So spring gets another chance.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

You Dig?

It hit me as I scanned the narrow patch of open sky behind our house, trying to figure out where to attempt tomatoes again: we live in the woods. It doesn't always feel like woods, what with the cleared land next door where the library and ballfields are and the main road not far off, but stitching together the open space, set off just slightly from the houses, are woodlands and scrub, with towering, massive oaks, mature evergreens of several varieties, black walnuts, opportunistic maples and who knows what-all.

This luxuriant cover does not admit much sun for vegetables. But right up against the house I think I've found a spot, between the heating oil fill pipe and the Bilco doors, that will get sun longer than any other part of the property. It's about six feet wide, this patch, and could comfortably extend out about six feet from the wall. Okay, fine -- two tomatoes, two sunflowers (school project), two cukes.

Except that to put seeds in the ground is to serve a salad bar for our friends the whitetailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus. So I'm going in heavy. At the last house, I dug a 12x16' patch in the front yard beside the driveway and built what I called the Plant Detention Center: heavy-gauge chicken wire strung on eight-foot two by fours set in concrete, with a gate and everything. It was hideous. However, the plot produced decent crops of strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, tomatillos, peas, green beans, cucumbers, zukes, one green pepper, marigolds and probably some other things. The couple from the Bronx who bought our house that May tore down the PDC before the strawberries came up. The blank stares they leveled at me over the closing table while I told them that actual strawberries were going to come out of the dirty ground in about a week was one of the first inputs that eventually resulted in the name of this blog.

"But this is only going to be six by six feet," you say. Deer don't care. The library tried to grow sunflowers in a similarly-sized patch, but after a few months had produced just twelve thin brown sticks about eight inches tall. They had used thin nylon netting and five-foot metal posts driven into the ground, and at night the laughter of the deer while they pushed it over and ate the budding stalks was a terrible thing. I blame Lopsides and his posse.

And because I cannot think to scale, I am building PDC CB2. This one will be a freestanding booth of pressure-treated two by fours with a gate (or possibly a screen door) set into the front. CB2 will have three sides, the back of it abutting the wall of the house. It will make the first PDC look like the Taj Mahal.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Donations in honor of Greg Sewell

From Greg's wife:

Donations in honor of our beloved Greg Sewell may be made to Millennium Promise, a community-led development project aimed at helping rural African villages lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

All donations in Greg's name will be specifically earmarked for a cluster of six villages in central Ghana, where key initiatives include bed net distribution to combat the spread of malaria; training farmers in agricultural techniques; constructing and renovating health clinics; and providing safe water.

Greg spent a life-changing year in Ghana as a volunteer, teaching computer literacy as part of his passionate belief that access to knowledge can help people create better lives for themselves. His experience in Ghana set him on a course of volunteer work and galvanized his commitment to helping others less fortunate than himself. In September he would have started a Masters degree at Columbia, specializing in international human rights. Please help us continue Greg's work and his dreams of a healthier and more peaceful Africa with your kind contribution to Millennium Promise.

To make an on-line contribution in memory of Greg, please visit the Millennium Promise website.

Mark the box, “Check if you would like to make an honor or memorial gift.” Once “memorial gift” has been selected, please enter in Greg’s name in the space provided.

To make a donation by cheque, please make cheque out to Millennium Promise and send to:

Millennium Promise
Attn: Cassandra Ryan
432 Park Avenue South, 13th Floor
New York, NY 10016

*Please add “In memory of Greg Sewell” in the memo line.

With deepest gratitude at this time of our incalculable loss,

And from me (Bill) thank you all for your kind comments and well wishes. They've been very comforting to many people.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

RIP, Greg Sewell

"When I come back, I'll roll around in it." That's what Greg wrote to me from Ghana in 2003, speaking of our lush green suburban lawn, such a far cry from the dusty sandlots of Accra.

And I so wanted him to do so. But dragging a cosmopolitan like Greg from one of his cities -- London, New York, Toronto, Accra, Doha -- was like pulling a tooth from a healthy person. I knew he wanted to come up this way, but I also knew he couldn't. He was of Brooklyn. Once you move out of that environment, you see how hard it is to entice someone from the city north, especially someone without a car.

And so we didn't overlap as we once did. Even in New York, it was hard for the metropolitan woman who shared my apartment and me to meet up with our friends. We lived in Rego Park, they lived in Williamsburg and Prospect Heights. On occasion after the Lad was born we would eat bagels and drink mimosas, talk about politics, watch the marathon go by. We still felt mobile, they still seemed like our circle. But we moved, and our contact became sporadic, thrice-yearly. Nevertheless, even without direct replacement in our new geographic lives, these earlier ties remained just as important.

And then, this. Our dear Greg -- he who trod lightest upon the social circle, being somehow central to it but seeming least invested -- has left us. Pneumonia followed by sepsis followed by complications, and after thirteen days of valiant battle, Greg moved on. Irreligious and unapologetic, Greg had other plans for death, it's fair to say. He lived well, and savored, and immersed himself -- especially in music -- and was too young to ship.

The other day, when things looked particularly bad for Greg, I stepped out of my office in its office park and stood by the trunk of a willow that leaned far out over a constructed streamlet. This tree is older than the buildings, I think, with its thickset trunk and myriad branches. As I stared, it transformed into a lung. Its trunk drew sustenance from the earth and spread it into the leaves. Sure, maybe I had it backwards -- the leafy tendrils drew in carbon dioxide and transferred it to the wood, and my forced parallel to Greg's condition was just that. However, I took a few deep breaths and thought of my breath entering Greg's lungs, and I thanked the tree for its gift of oxygen. Connection of any sort, a tether in unmoored times.

In the past two weeks I've seen an outpouring of love and goodwill that tells me something: Greg made this. As a volunteer, coordinator, consultant, Greg's metier has been to give people a small gift of light, whether they be schoolchildren struggling to enter the modern capitalist consumer society, or victims of its worst excesses. Charm, erudition, wit, arty glasses -- Greg was someone to whom you wished to be close. By his very life itself, Greg created this outpouring of love, which only seems sudden in light of his death. It was there, a constant, during his life, even, and especially, toward the end. But there from the beginning, else the end could not have happened as it did.

Greg left us surrounded by love, borne someplace on love's cushion, drawing love forth from his friends and family, generating a gigantic gyre of loving feeling and goodwill from around the world, a violent light of love calling him to health and recovery but acknowledging the possibility of his passing, and celebrating all with equal recognition of his life. Greg is gone, but that love can only be spent among we who remain. I'm pouring forth my share to all who hear me.

Today the crocuses and hostas are pushing up. The daffodils are starting their green rise. The air is warm, the sky that particular shade of spring blue. And the grass, the grass is greening. It misses Greg, the grass does, and calls out for the shape of him to mold its contours and to lie briefly remembered in its embrace.

As he lies in ours, remembered, loved, always.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Arrest this Development

They’re planning a housing development up this way…two, in fact. One of them—the one I'm going to talk about—is along a woodland road bounded by old stone walls, steep hills and rushing streams. It's a place where you can drive a little faster, if that’s your thing, or look off into the trees and see the places where the rocks are exposed and the land slants upward rapidly into these human-scale heights that beckon the hiker or picnicker. Deer, of course, abound. This road often serves cyclists and runners, although it’s too rich for my blood with an extended climb that’s got to be a mile long.

So they want to build on it, 300 or so houses, McMansions, of course, because that’s what builders build when they build new. An ignorant newspaper editor around these parts recently praised the sketches intended for the other development because each one was different! And had lots of windows!

Anyway, here’s my point. My point is, if you’ve got to build it, build it compactly. Build it around the intersection at the heart of this proposed development, and make half of it town houses, insert a few true mansions among them, limit the number of large single-lot homes, put in a green, leave a median strip between the homes and the main road, have multiple access points to it, and add a convenience store and a post office relay station and a place where the library can park a book mobile once a week, and sidewalks, trails into the woods, a traffic light at the intersection, designate a small daycare facility, and save the entire area another headache that none of us need. From every perspective—environmental to taxational to educational to aesthetic—this is the better way.

Advantages of building the way I’ve described:
  • School buses can pick up multiple children at fewer stops, thus saving gas, increasing public safety, reducing traffic delays (thus saving even more gas), and requiring fewer buses which will get less wear and tear.
  • Police and fire coverage will not need to be as dispersed.
  • Garbage pickup will be more consolidated.
  • The woodland character can be largely preserved, thus improving the value of the homes.
  • A convenience store will require fewer car trips to the nearest grocery store for essentials, thus saving gas, time, and traffic and allowing single-car families to move in.
  • Pedestrian traffic along the main road would be reduced, thus preserving public safety.
  • Kids could have a safe place to play within sight of homes and businesses.
  • The rural/recreational advantages of the area would be retained, even improved.
  • Stream runoff will be less impacted by the forced runoff from lawns and pavement, thus preserving biodiversity in regional waterways.
  • Public transportation (bus) becomes a viable option to serve the development, connecting it to regional rail and commuter bus lines.
  • The bonds of community will remain stronger than in developments with large homes separated by daunting swaths of non-native plantings.
  • Retaining trees means cooler, cleaner air.

Those pestilential McMansion developments exist in the region, of course, in a sort of rough ring around our semi-protected little swath, and those woods are one of the buffers. Coming north you pass out of a large commercial zone, past a few developments built up against sensitive habitat, then enter a long cool green corridor, where some conscientious prankster, alarmed at the speeding traffic, has pasted pairs of deer-eye-sized reflectors in the trees to encourage people to slow down at night. The stone walls. The thick trunks fading back into the darkness of hillsides, then a rushing torrent pouring down from the east. This, a developer wants to ruin, making it house after house after house after house, replacing forest with lawn, replacing native stone walls with imported, pasting up the shitty architecture of least common denominator over triple garage doors, the whole thing taking up the whole space.

To the developer who thinks there’s no market for such an idyllic development as the one I've described, I say: look at the towns nearby. They were built the same way, 150 years ago, and they're fully occupied with homes that retain their value even in real estate downturns. Imagine if the closely-built, walkable, traditional homes in this area were brand new? Demand would soar.

To the local governments who claim that they have no power in the face of such developers and can’t rezone the area for adjoined housing or redraw the property lines, I say, you’re just not using your imagination. Considering that housing prices would be more stable, if not higher, if you build the way I suggest, and that the community would benefit, it seems that developer and town could easily reach agreement on the particulars.

For the record, I'm not against growth per se (although my preference would be to see density increase in established zones before we rip out more woodland). I wouldn't be surprised to know that the developer has been here longer than I have. No, my take on development is not "last one in lock the door." Rather, it's more like "next one in, don’t fuck the place up."

Anyone who knows anything about how to accomplish such feats of exurbitude, please comment below.

De Lauf der Dinge (Ad hoc off-the-cuff outtake)

The kid's like, totally into cause and effect. So's the cat, apparently.

The original is partially viewable here. And the Honda commercial it spawned. ("Honda? *call me* ")

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Gold is a soft metal, but it can take a few scrapes and look good. That thin band with the milled edge isn’t quite the same one she placed on my finger ten years ago—you can see where it’s been dinged a few times, and it’s now attached to the silver engagement ring she also gave me.

The silver ring—it came from the Museum Company store—is scratched in places, the design worn and weathered on the bottom. Although it’s a circle, it does have a bottom: I always wear it with the “vous” uppermost, partly because that's the first word of the sentence that runs around the band, but also because I had two metal bits soldered to the opposite side of the inside rim so that it would fit when I lost all that weight, and they nestle properly in the inside bend of my knuckle. Around that same time I had the two rings welded together—they were too loose, rattling around up and down my suddenly-slenderer finger, and the wedding band seemed lonesome and thin by contrast with the other when they were apart.

We resisted marrying near her parents’ house at first, then later bought the house from them and lived in it, then moved someplace else. Now we drive past the country club where our ceremony took place, several times a week, never having dreamed that it would be part of our landscape. A close friend of ours drew the place eight years before we married and gave us the drawing a couple of years ago. We hung it up near the foot of the stairs.

The guy we bought the wedding band from—Ben Moses was his name, on 47th Street—made a big deal out of the “milled edge,” like grinding a pattern into a thin 14-karat ring should add some kind of premium to it. I haggled a little, I won’t lie, it seemed like the right thing to do, especially after he tried to engage me in sports talk. He played along. It was nice. Ben Moses’ handshake was firm and lasted and he looked me in the eye, then turned to speak about me to my then-fiancé without letting go. If I wanted to buy something like that again, I’d go to him.

My left ring finger is thinner now, and the ring’s occasionally run into some things hard enough to scratch it, but the scratches catch the light. On the inside of the ring, the part that touches my skin, the weld is not decorative. The metal lumps soldered in there are crude-looking, too. But it has never fit better. And both it and I are stronger than when she married me.

Vous et nul autre, my love. Happy anniversary.

Monday, March 17, 2008

If anyone's looking for me, I'll be doing yoga in my gravity boots

(Important backstory: The author has been six feet and a half inch tall since he was eighteen years old.)

I've peaked.

Alarmed that I hadn't gone to the doctor in three years or so, I made an appointment with a new one. I got on the scale and she slapped the metal ruler onto my head.

"Five-eleven and a quarter," she told me.

"Wha?" I said. "Surely you mean six feet and a half an inch."

"Stand up as tall and as straight as you can," she said. I did. "Ah, yes, right, you're not five-eleven and a quarter. You're five-eleven and a half."

The doctor tells me that as we AGE, our discs "lose their moisture." Oh, please. That's right out of a Gilbert Gottfried bit he used to do about drying out a pet turtle.

She didn't understand. I had gone from Lumberjack to Regular, from CEO-height to grunt, from Heroic Warrior to Hobbit. Five-foot-wha!? ME? There had to be some other explanation besides the loss of a little disc-water. Finally, I made her give it to me straight. Like most parents, I'm shrinking Because Of The Children.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Why New Yorkers Are Pissed

(Hi Jessica Hagy)

Spitzer's Law, Eliot Spitzer, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Bill Clinton, Henry Hyde, Rush Limbaugh, Strom Thurmond, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Bill Bennett, hypocrisy, the appearance of moral rectitude/stridency of opinion regarding "immorality", likelihood that the reality is the opposite.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Someone please write this up, film it, send link

I just had a thought that a funny skit or short film would be a fantasy setting with a typical group of adventurers on some kind of quest. The characters would have strange, major quirks, like one guy's inordinately proud of his ornate shield, one seems to be obviously planning to kill everyone else and steal their gold, but no one seems to mind particularly. They butcher everything that crosses their path, and they feel a great sense of accomplishment each time something dies by their swords. Everything they kill is carrying or guarding some gold coins, which they pick up and carry along, eventually staggering. Slowly anachronisms would be revealed, in speech, in events, in accoutrements. Maybe there's one female character, and they all keep making fun of her until she gets mad and stabs one of them, not fatally, at which point they become extremely contrite. And of course, haha, it's eventually revealed that they're D&D characters.

I had this idea because I used to play a Ranger who had a cloak lined with pockets in which he kept a variety of important things -- gunpowder, spices, tobacco, spell ingredients -- I had this list of fifty items. It was like a medieval fly-fishing vest. As I was reading about Gary Gygax, I thought of how this supposedly formidable, silent warrior, Rogan (who was named well before Rogaine, by the way) would look in real life, striding along, bulging pockets all over the place, his trousers sagging with all the things in his pockets, rattling, smelling funny.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

This is what it's like

South of here last week there was little snow. And fewer, albeit still plentiful, deer.

Where I grew up, a deer sighting was about as likely as a polar bear. So you can imagine that I feel as though I've moved to the American Museum of Natural History and Yellowstone, while the lad will probably grow up to be a hunter.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Truth Can Be Adjusted, But Why Bother?

For some reason I can't get over this. You all saw Michael Clayton, right? Terrific picture. A connected woman who watches DVDs with me was able to score that one before its official release date and we checked it out, knowing in advance about its BIG SECRET. Said secret being that parts were shot up in this area two years ago.

At the time it was embarrassing: George Clooney on the front page of the paper for a couple of days, area hausfraus quoted, gushing about getting styled so they'd look pretty while they dropped everything in order to stand outside and catch a glimpse of the chin-cleft and the hair.

But having seen it, I can't get it out of my head. Not just because it presented a rare opportunity for Clooney to unleash powerful emotions and present a less in-control character than he's often asked to, nor for the impeccable acting of the supporting cast (including the Oscar-winning Tilda Swinton, who was as understated and tense as a hidden bridge cable). No, it was mostly because OMG! where his car blows up? That's where I go running!

We're watching those couple of scenes of him driving through the country, both of us narrating, "Ah, he's on Clove...okay, turning onto Otterkill." "Wait, there are no horses there, the horses are on Woodcock Mountain Road." "That's artistic license." "Oh but look, there's the viaduct." "Cool."

I guess what I like, in addition to my connection to and insider knowledge about that specific area -- one of my favorite places anywhere -- is that the filmmakers (former resident Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter & director) created a character from that particular obscure town, then managed to get the thing shot in that town. The authenticity of which is apparent to a relatively small number of non-Hollywood people, so you wonder why. But then, our last house was a bi-level with precisely the same layout as the father's house in the film (down the block from my running buddy's house), and when you recognize that, you know so very much about those characters, understand something about their lives, dreams, pressures.

And when you see Clooney fleeing from his exploded car, running up the Jessup Trail onto Schunnemunck, you're like "Dude, remember when the Lad had to pee that time while we were hiking? That was right there! Watch out George, don't step in it!"

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Am Blinding You With Science (or Tarzan Not Be Ignored III)

For the third time in my short blogging career, I'm happy to report that there will be a total lunar eclipse tonight STARTING IN LIKE TEN MINUTES and reaching totality at around 10:3010:00. See! See!

The next one's in 2010, and I promise to give you better notice.

UPDATE: If you squinted and jerked your head from side to side, it looked like this:

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I Have Been to the Mirrorworld

William Gibson's Pattern Recognition gave me "mirror world," the protagonist's private word for the alien normalcies of other cultures--misplaced steering wheels, different numbering schemes for elevator buttons, odd color choices for post boxes, weird keyboards. Like the world at the end of the Bradbury story "A Sound of Thunder," or Spock's beard.

Or the cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia. It's funny how things change when you enter a different state. New Jersey's jug-handle turning lanes. Philly's skyline. Maryland's center-median rest stops. On that side of an invisible line, you can buy liquor in the grocery store. On this side, no.

So even though you're in suburban Baltimore, where there is grass, and trees, and these are largely the same species (although with fewer spruces, perhaps), the rocks...look slightly funny. They're pale gray, and water smoothes them more than it does their northern cousins. Decorative elements on the highway overpasses are different, green-painted railings or curlicue ironwork, pale stones cut into flat, narrow rectangles. In the city, there are all spaces between tall structures, actual room to view them, which makes them seem like individual THINGS. That's not like a city. That's not like THE city, anyway, which is what everything's judged by after growing up on Long Island. In Philadelphia it's the busy narrow streets, somehow a miniature of a city despite the perfectly respectable skyscrapers nearby.

My standards for what comprises a Mirrorworld are clearly lower than they were when I traveled this country in a car for six months or navigated rural Spain fairly well on my honeymoon, but that's what happens when you narrow your horizons by adding children and steady work. Even the familiar and obvious becomes strange when it's not precisely identical to what you experience every day.

This post brought to you by having run out of ideas and getting in very little sleep, but a lot of driving, the last several days.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What Passes for Adventure

To Build a Fire. The Old Man and the Sea. The Bear. My Drive Home from Work Tuesday Night.

My humble addition to the canon of Man v. Nature stories was a harrowing three-hour drive in ice and snow. Ordinarily, this would be nothing to 21st-century Man in his Honda Fit, for the roads are plowed and the salt potent, even on the hills of this country.

But this storm, like the Perfect Storm, timed itself, well, perfectly. So that when I realized I needed to leave work in Westchester at 4:43 in order to ever get home, the snainy snow was falling earnestly, meaningfully, literarily, on the living and the dead alike, as it were, so anyway I got in the car.

Long story short (and short story a favorite of English teachers), the roads sucked. The Taconic was bad, Route 6 and the Bear Mountain Parkway worse. I stopped twice to clear clotted ice from my windshield wipers (and for M&Ms, because they now have a kind with peanut butter in them, yum). The traffic circle at the foot of the Goat Trail resembled Cocytus -- except that, working my way up from there, it only got worse.

But it wasn't until I had navigated those treacherous cliffs at a crawl, then descended again like an old man on a greased staircase, then crossed the bridge and another traffic circle and headed up into the taller hills, past the last motel, that it got truly ugly. On this stretch my wheels spun on the uphill slopes and, had I not come to a complete stop at the top of each rise in order to creep down the next slope in first and second gear, I could easily have careened downward out of control. Fishtailing and kept in line only by judicious use of the gas to keep the wheels grabbing, I was also contending with -- get this -- traffic, since a bunch of other idiots live up here too. And they of course drive SUVs and have a higher tolerance for the careening. There were a couple of points where clusters of cars had marooned on the side of the road, or in the road, and only those of us following ever-fainter wheel ruts could still find purchase. We passed them in a guilty line, unable to stop and lend a hand because what hand? Thus we kept going until overtaken by a plow. Even then, following the plow down the steepest hill amidst the ghosts of old crashes, locked into a sudden herd of minivans and four-wheel-drive vehicles, lanes completely invisible, everyone drifting a little off-kilter now and then, it was touch and go till we descended from the Highlands.

Later, I laid the flimsy nylon tarpaulin of Man upon the automobile against the ice that would form that night. Ice coated every twig. Water ran from my hat brim. Grainy fluzzard fell hissing, and as I stopped to listen there was music in it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


After last Thursday's Weight Watchers meeting, I brought home my weight charts going back to January 2002, when I started. I've been feeling a little less than motivated lately and thought a graphic representation of my downs and ups would be in order. Here they are, one hundred and ninety-fourish weigh-ins on a graph. Click to enlarge, if that's what you're into.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Weight Watchers works.

(Dear Weight Watchers. Please pay me for loving you. Thanks.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Aches, the Pains, the Aches of Overuse

The cycle works thisaway: you run two races back to back in the fall, without reaaaalllly being in super-great running shape. This causes your knee to get a little sore. That gets worse as you keep running on it. You look it up: it's patellar tendonitis (tendinitis?), probably. You keep running on it, but maybe a little less.

Flash forward to February. You've been running a little less each week, trying to give it time to heal, but you don't want to stop running, because then? Fat. So you run 9 miles one Sunday. Take Advil. It's fine!

Run three miles the following Thursday and strain your calf.

But that sounds like underuse, you'll observe. But not really. It's really overuse of something that wasn't ready to be used quite so much.

So from now on it's up early to write. Doctor's appointment soon. No running this weekend. Note to self: avoid cheese.

UPDATE: Self-diagnoses confirmed. Pictures here.

A Great Sadness: RIP, area child

I hate to type this, but if I don't write it out there ain't nothin' else. A seven-year-old boy from the area died of the flu this past Sunday. He apparently had a history of asthma.

I've never had even a taste of the pain his parents must be going through, but the fear wells up as I type, listening to my own asthmatic son coughing in his bed down the hall. We've taken every precaution and that's all the comfort I can muster.

RIP, young man. And may your parents be well.

Monday, February 4, 2008

You've Been Warned, Maybe

Up around where I live, and dotting the countryside for a long way around these parts, there are tall poles bearing giant sirens. These are to let us know when if the nuke plant about 20 miles from here goes plooey (although science tells me that it would be somewhat louder, more like kwa-THOOM). We’ll, uh, we’ll hear these sirens, the theory goes, and then we’ll know…when…to start panicking.

Not much of a plan, if you ask me.

We’re more or less upwind of the thing, so there are no guarantees that when the plant goes we’ll be in any real danger (apart from the zombies lurching northward from the site of the blast, thirsting for the untainted blood and radiation-free brains of the living). On the other hand, the Highlands have a tendency to suck air into the valley and hang on to it (specializing in bad air with tiny particles that trigger asthma).

Either way, those sirens are there on their poles, just to let you know that you’re within 20 miles of a clean, safe time bomb energy source. Every few days (it seems) they announce a test. “We’re going to test the sirens,” they say, “so everyone listen for something unfamiliar that sounds like a warning.” There are two sirens within a mile of my house. I’ve found that I tend to cock my head to the side, maybe cup an ear. So for a few days after each announcement my neighbors and I walk around cupped and cocked—sorry, is there something you want to share with the rest of the readers? good, let’s continue—shushing people, listening for a sound we’ve never heard before.

Do this long enough and it provides your nerves with a much-needed stretch. On the downwind side of the plant, the government hands out potassium iodine pills to residents. Apparently once you hear the siren, you can pop a few of these pills and your lymph nodes will take up the potassium iodine instead of the radioactive material drifting your way, thus sparing you from that particular form of cancer. On that side of the river after a warning, they walk around cupped and cocked and nervously rattling pill bottles. At the plant, inspectors find radioactive water in little puddles. Sometimes in the control rooms there are fires.

But a few days pass, and invariably there is not a peep. Not long after we don’t hear something there’ll be a small item on page nine of the paper that says “Sirens Fail Again.” That still doesn’t mean they for-sure didn’t go off. There’s some possibility that they sounded, but that the unfamiliar warning resembled a car door slamming, or someone’s dog barking, or crows bickering over a carcass.


Sunday, February 3, 2008


Few things:
  • I saw an eagle standing on the ice out on Tomahawk Lake this morning.
  • My patellar tendo(i?)nitis is much more localized than it was, but returns after each long run.
  • We dropped in on friends and found three goats penned in their backyard. I was not upset that they hadn't told us about the goats; I was upset that they weren't reading Exurbitude, because if they had, they would have told us about the goats. (The goats were on loan to eat weeds.)
Actual prose to follow.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


It’s funny, I’ve been reading Twittered and live-blogged accounts of tonight’s democratic debate, after watching the end of Sicko. I’m feeling immersed, and it’s bringing back some older stuff.

Last election, I mentioned, I took some vacation time and drove to Cleveland and went into the ACT office and said “put me to work.” It burned so bad, that dirty-feeling defeat…it’s still as easy to conjure as most of seventh grade. I had to pull over during the drive home—on election morning, driving eight hours home to haul my son into the voting booth to pull the lever for the better choice—I had to pull over, unsure why, and I sat there for a minute until I found myself praying, literally, praying to the people of the United States to do the right thing. Somehow, we didn’t.

So this year I’m looking at the field and I’m thinking about the country and letting the basic message of Sicko sink in, and I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to pull it together to give a rat’s ass. Just the effort required to care feels like too much. I’m tired, dammit. I’ve marched a LOT. I’ve canvassed, and phone-called, and letter-wrote, and donated, and volunteered, and continued to pay my taxes and read my newspaper with my nose held. It’s tiring, knowing what’s required. It’s tempting, so tempting, to just commute and come home and turn my eyes inward and keep an eye on the bank account and make sure the schoolbus comes on time, and let that be enough.

I won’t, though. I can feel the fight quickening in me.

Monday, January 28, 2008


I was washing our cast-iron skillet tonight and noted the surface, which is a little rough. Not sandpaper rough, but it’s not super-smooth. My parents’ two cast-iron skillets—I think they got them for their wedding fifty years ago—have interior surfaces that are the envy of baby’s cheeks, so smooth they are. If you enlarged the cooking surface of one of these pans ten thousand times so that it was 2.36 miles across, the largest imperfection would be the size of a grain of sand. That’s smooth, brother.

Years of cooking for a spouse and five children and uncountable relatives and friends will do that to a pan. Scraping hard steel spatulas across the comparatively softer iron wears slowly away at the dark metal. Mountains of eggs. Continents of tomatoes, zucchini, hamburgers, grilled cheese. How many turns of wrist, how many flips of pancake, to burnish the metal until it becomes that featureless iron plain?

At Weight Watchers we talk about how easy it is to equate food with love and acceptance and how easy it is to make food the shortcut to feeling loved and accepted. And how that’s not the best way to go about things. But look at the evidence of the skillet. How many hours, how many accumulated years spent before that hunk of metal, scraping, scraping, scraping it smooth in order to provide for loved ones? How is that texture not a message of love?

Our pan is new, just four years old or so. The tiny jags in its surface make the steel spatula ring like an old Western Bell telephone when I cook. It’s already incrementally smoother than when I bought it. But I’m in no rush. It’s not about always being able to cook on a perfectly smooth surface. It’s about making the surface smooth.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Intellectually, I'm a caveman."

Thanks to everyone who kindly tried to help me find the origin of this quote today, which I sought for some vague, pointless reason. Since those of you who are still curious are doubtless finding this blog entry now, I'll tell you what one intrepid Googler was able to discover (thank you, Drew): it was most likely Sly Stallone, around 1976.

It's not much of a quote, but no one else seems to have said it.

UPDATE: There are a number of interesting hits on a Google search for intellectual caveman.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Haliaeetus can wait

Today the children and I drove this big loop, about forty miles, on the trail of eagles; down one side of the river, across, up the other side, across again. We were the only people outside, and that for just a few foolish minutes at a park in Peekskill near the train station. We stood facing the water, looking upriver in the direction of the Worragut and World's End, into the teeth of a hellacious north wind that drove whitecaps into breakers into the shore a hundred feet before us.

Flickr had told me to look there for eagles. Why do I listen to the Internet?

It was an arctic wind, too, twenty degrees, like Skadi’s own air conditioner. In the first minute the kids mounted an enthusiastic assault on the vast Structure-for-Play that's there beside the water, but the lad was hunching into his coat and the lass was crying before very long. My instincts told me that they were learning valuable life lessons through suffering. Except I was also freezing my ass off, so I let them get back in the car. Eagles be damned.

I'm a desperate tour guide on such excursions, rushing to tell my son everything I can about the world, as though there won't be enough time, as though I want to fill him up and leave none of his knowledge to chance. So I babble. Every stray memory, landmark, historical or scientific fact sparked by the landscape comes out. "You remember there we attended the Shad Fest, and the precision skydivers from West Point came down? You met Robert Kennedy there. You were one." He's thinking about air hockey, and how thirsty he is. "That's Breakneck Ridge. I climbed most of it with Uncle Larry once. I couldn't finish because I was too heavy and out of shape. That's Bannerman's Castle, but the island is also called Pollopel." He knows this, knows it was an ammo dump. He's seen it on Google Earth.

We pull over in Cold Spring, looking north through the Wind-Gate between Storm King and Breakneck. Route 218 cuts across Storm King's face. It's the northernmost of the Highland peaks on the west side of the Hudson, to our far right as we face the river from a parking lot near some condos. Strung out to the south are similarly rocky, majestic peaks, directly across the narrow fjord. There are no eagles, but they'd look right against those icy cliffs. We sit there a minute. The little one is sucking her thumb, eyelids heavy.

"What's that, like, path across Storm King?" the boy asks from the back seat. I tell him it's a road. There's a pause. "It looks like a lizard," he says.

"What does?" I turn to see what he's talking about.

He's talking about the entire ten-mile swath of the visible Highlands on the west bank of the river. He explains, starting with the head, Storm King, and its slash of a mouth, then the Crow's Nest forming the back, Target Point a forelimb. The ridge declining southward is a tail where it descends toward West Point. Of course it's obvious, once he points it out. Lizard, check.

We have different frames of reference, different senses of scale. He has no problem with a ten-mile-wide canvas. There's nothing so giant that it can't be made into something familiar and small. He's unspoiled by any notion of his own insignificance. On that we agree; he and his sister are the central objects in our landscape. Their small forms bear Jupiter's gravity and the encoded wisdom of generations. How can I possibly teach them anything?

Later, at home, he asks me if a crocodile is as big as a school bus. "No," I lie, knowing that some salt-water crocodiles are longer than the bus he takes to kindergarten. He clarifies. "No," he says. "Not end to end. I mean, could a crocodile eat a schoolbus."

Ah. "No," I tell him. "Absolutely not."