Archive for the 'Favorite Things' Category

Apr 07 2014

Peter Matthiessen

He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.

Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.

I’ve blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends’ hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.

Here’s what I wrote on Amazon:

“For nearly twenty years I’ve been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as “Bloody Watson” and “Emperor Watson” for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen’s masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise ….

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson’s death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing — and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson’s sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius’ quest is a reminder to the reader — this is a true story. Matthiessen’s research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson’s lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.”

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Jan 27 2014

Cool Tools

If you want hours of fascinating, informative fun, buy a copy of Kevin Kelly’s massive tome, Cool Tools.

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Most everyone over 50 remembers the  Whole Earth Catalogue of the late 60s and early 70s. A big bible on counter-cultural tools that covered everything from yurt construction to VW engine repair,the Whole Earth Catalogue was the book to have hanging around for hours of stoned obsessing. I can remember hanging out at my hippie cousin’s shack in Cotuit and spending hours going through that book (I was 12 and was not stoned!).

Kelly, one of the original editors of the WEC along with Stewart Brand, went on to co-found Wired and has been a leader of the DIY – Maker movement. His passion for the best in tools and gadgets has come together brilliantly in this lavishly illustrated, well designed, brilliant compendium of the best stuff in the world. Best vest? Filson Mackinaw (I own one). Best tweezers, best chainsaw, best book on chickens, best productivity applications ….

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Oct 22 2013

I Guano Kill Em All

There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.

I want them all dead.

Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.

Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.

It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.

So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.

The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.

Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.

Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.

“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”

Thank you. I shall have my revenge.

8 responses so far

Mar 04 2013

Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

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Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

- Sterling Hayden

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Feb 12 2013

Olympian Blunder: The IOC drops Wrestling

Published by under Favorite Things

I’m not a fan of the International Olympic Committee. I ran afoul of their ass-hattery in 2008 in Beijing when I was working at Lenovo, a one-time sponsor. I was dismayed at their decision after Beijing  to drop baseball from the Games — a strange decision given the global spread of the sport through Latin America and Asia — but the news in the New York Times that the IOC is dropping wrestling is truly jaw dropping given the legacy of the ancient Greek games where wrestling was most certainly one of the main events along with the usual Ur sports of running and jumping and hurling javelins and discuses (disci?).

This is a sport they painted on Greek urns.  A sport so essential, so basic that it would seem to be sacred. But no, the Red Bull generation must have their X-games and so while sports like water ballet and beach volleyball and BMX bicycling get their moment of glory, the true test of man versus man, a sport going back to the Bronze Age, is dropped in a secret ballot by a bunch of bureaucratic bullies more concerned with their television revenue than the Olympic ideal. As a former wrestler (high school) it’s all sadder to see it go.

Here’s a link to the New York Times story.

“When you think of the Olympics you think of wrestling,” said Cael Sanderson, the wrestling coach at Penn State and a 2004 Olympic champion. “It was a marquee event in ancient Greece and in the modern Games. After running, it was the next sport to be part of the Games. Like track and field, the Olympics are the highest level. Some sports, it’s just not as special.”

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Feb 06 2013

Fully charged

My daughter gave me a Duracell Powermat for Christmas and I’m loving it so much I bought a second one for my New York office. The system consists of a sleek base unit that can accommodate two devices, a case for my Samsung Galaxy S3, and a portable battery unit that can charge a fading phone away from the base. This is cordless charging, the same inductive technology used to recharge electric toothbrushes. I first saw it demonstrated in 2009 at Qualcomm, but it was a bit clunky and didn’t seem all that interesting at the time.

But in practice the system is awesome with a couple irritations. After fitting the case over the phone and plugging it’s male connector into the phone’s female micro-USB port (tight fit, which makes changing cases a bit of a hassle — more on that in a second) the phone can be placed on the charging base where it magnetically slips into the proper position with an audible confirmation that charging has started. I set the phone to go into “bedside” mode when its docked on the Powermat. Only two phones are supported — the Galaxy and the iPhone 4s — but the iPhone 5 case is expected sometime soon. The base units come in three, two and single device configurations. I thought the spare battery brick was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, but on a recent vacation it was pressed into use.

The hard plastic case isn’t as rugged as an Otterbox and has to be removed if I want to dock the phone in the car cradle. I imagine Duracell has a car unit in the works, but for now I have to peel off the Duracell case to use the phone in the car for the usual GPS/handsfree/Audible/music stuff.

Duracell is pushing the technology hard, painting a picture where charging bases will be available in coffee shops, nightclubs, airport lounges, stadiums, etc.. and apparently truly wireless charging is over the horizon.

Here’s the obligatory YouTube vision of Millenial bliss:

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The double-device mat is $90 at Amazon and includes the portable battery pack and a case for a single phone.. A one-device mat is $32.

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Oct 16 2012

Learn a poem

Published by under Favorite Things

I don’t have a photographic memory and can’t recite long soliloquies or famous speeches extemporaneously, but like being able to identify the stars I’ve always wanted to. Someone wrote that true genius is the being the first person to quote someone else, and I’ve always wanted a few great poems to be burned into my brain to be pedantically pulled out at the absolute perfect moment, thereby marking me as that jerk with the big mouth. One classic I’ve always wanted to memorize is Lord Byron’s The Dark, Blue Sea. The second verse will do just fine for those moments afloat when some noble sentiments are called for. Melville is good for such stuff, but Byron has the best sea poem of all in my opinion:

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean-roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.”

Poetry astonishes me sometimes.

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Jun 18 2012

Father’s Day Kiting

Published by under Favorite Things

I spent Father’s Day weekend on the Delaware shore at the quintessential beach town, Rehoboth Beach, with my wife and her family.  This was my fourth visit and I love the place as it is everything Cape Cod is not: boardwalk, honky-tonk, and big surf as opposed to stately WASPy-ness, calm bays, and no real concentration of the whole saltwater taffy-caramel corn dog thing that I’d expect from Coney Island on south.

Every evening, around 5:30, when the beaches slowly emptied of roasting sunbathers and the umbrellas and chairs were stacked and put away, when the lifeguards climbed down from their perches and packed it for the day, a huge armada of kites and wind-driven stuff would suddenly appear in front of a little shop on the ground floor of a boardwalk hotel. A few people would unfurl little kites and start to actually fly the things, in the literal sense of the word, doing more with two strings and a little triangle of sailcloth than I ever dared imagine back in the old days of buying a vinyl bat kite and six rolls of cheap cotton string and then getting a charge out of letting it get so high there was no way in hell any one would waste the time to haul it back down.

So we parted with $35 and came away with a kite that provided three hours of instant fun. The next morning we were back and bought kite #2, this one touted as the most advanced of the advanced “a bee on amphetamines” as the label claimed. And by nightfall we had kite number 3, which you don’t want to know the price of.

My son finally found an outlet for all those years of video gaming in the analog world and blew away the learning curve in minutes. He is a kite maestro. Me, not so much. I am more into the sedate than the extreme.

We now own:

  1. Osprey Premier (our first and easiest to fly)
  2. A Prism Micron (the hardest to fly)
  3. A Prism E3 — a very good kite

Here  in the video is my son and my brother-in-law, who decides about two minutes into the video that it would be a good idea to strafe the camera man. The tail was zipping across my face. Apologies for mis-aimed videos, it’s hopeless trying to see the screen of a smartphone in full sun, let alone through polarized sunglasses.

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I highly recommend checking these things out. Now to figure out where to fly them on the Cape that won’t put them over the water.

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May 04 2012

Adam “MCA” Rauch 1964-2012

Published by under Favorite Things

In memory of the man and the band that gave me one of the best final-500-meter-sprint-to-the-finish-in-glory ergometer songs, one that has always been, and always will remain in that playlist simply called “Erg:”

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Dec 02 2011

Modern Muzak

Muzak, also known as Elevator Music, has always been a great joke. Hearing a Steely Dan tune like “Do It Again” while leafing through a six-month old issue of Field & Stream at the dentist is its own special circle of hell, especially when the mind starts getting infected and singing along silently to the bowdlerized tune (“Back, Jack, Do it Again ….”). And many a great movie has used elevator music to great comic effect. My favorite being Dawn of the Dead (yes, it’s Zombie week at Churbuck.com).

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Muzak, at least the true commercial version, is supposed to have a specific effect on the listener. According to the Wikipedia:

“Elevator music is typically set to a very simple melody, so that it can be unobtrusively looped back to the beginning. In a mall or shopping center, elevator music of a specific type has been found to have a psychological effect: slower, more relaxed music tends to make people slow down and browse longer.”

Which brings me to my constant musing about the effect that background music has on certain behaviors. I’ve written in the past* about the way that certain music can improve my ergometer results while other songs effectively kill it. This isn’t your usual athletic lockeroom get-psyched cliche music.  I’m not referring to Eye of the Tiger or House of Pain’s Jump Around. That Rocky soundtrack stuff isn’t what gets my 500 meter splits down an additional two seconds. Indeed, there is some academic research that confirms that some music can improve aerobic results but I’m too lazy at the moment to hunt it down.

When I tended bar it was a given that loud music drove alcohol consumption higher.  At some point in the evening the manager would always step in back, find the big volume control, and crank it when the joint was good and buzzed. Of course the din made it impossible to hear some desperate dipsomaniac shout an order over the heads of her fellow patrons for a pina colada, a peach daiquiri and a sloe gin fizz shortly after midnight on a Saturday night when the only thing that would keep the bar out of the weeds was sloshing wine into glasses and pulling drafts out of the taps. “What?! What?!” we’d shout, handing over a napkin and a pencil with a shrug and the implied suggestion to write it down. Obviously loud music made it difficult to conduct a conversation and all that shouting of “WHAT?” led to a subtle anxiety that could only be slaked by another drink and another drink after that.

Silent restaurants are spooky. I suppose a low volume soundtrack gives one the illusion of being in a sound bubble where one’s conversation can’t be overheard by the next table.

When I was writing unpublished novels and short stories in great earnest during college, I found I could only enter that special creative zone if there was music playing. Loud music. Something about writing to rock and roll got me into a typing groove. I can read fiction with soft music in the background — jazz, etc. — but can’t concentrate on academic level stuff if there are lyrics involved — the word absorption gets mixed up.

My big revelation, and this goes to the post’s headline, is my re-discovery of the Ambient genre and how perfectly it suits a day of concentration. In the mid-70s, when I was a college student, I had two roommates with very eccentric tastes in avant garde music. I’m talking stuff by Morton Subotnick, Sun Ra, Stomu Yamashta and most memorably, Brian Eno, in particular his Ambient 1: Music for Airports. For some reason, ambient is way back on my personal playlist these days.

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I think of Eno as the father of ambient music — he’s a genius at elevating background noise from elevators and waiting rooms to high art. Another godfather of ambient has to be Vangelis, particularly his soundtrack for Blade Runner:

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So, it’s strange as I age that my taste is music is not the chestnuts from my youth; one more rendition of Freebird or Green Grass and High Tides Forever and I’ll lose it. What’s surprising me is how my tastes have swung to utterly obscure musicians I would never have encountered were it not for the random intelligence behind Last.fm. So, with that said, here’s some names that deserve to be checked out. This is great music to plug into in the background when you’ve got other things to do.

  • Aphex Twin
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  • Eskmo ( a favorite video)
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  • Lorn
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  • Boards of Canada (note the YouTube comment, “The Ultimate Homework-Doing Music”)
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  • Carbon Based Lifeforms
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  • Loscil
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  • Stendeck
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  • Totakeke
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  • Monolake
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  • Robot Koch
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*: My erg playlist, from 2006 pretty much is holding firm. Suggestions always welcome as “erg playlist” seems to be a top search term driving people to this blog.

  1. Scum of the Earth: Rob Zombie
  2. Who Was in My Room Last Night: The Butthole Surfers
  3. Jesus Built my Hot Rod: Ministry
  4. Ain’t my Bitch: Metallica
  5. Rusty Cage: Soundgarden
  6. Sex Type Thing: Stone Temple Pilots
  7. New World Order: Ministry
  8. Hey Man, Nice Shot: Filter
  9. My Own Summer – Deftones
  10. Astro-Creep: White Zombie
  11. Them Bones: Alice in Chains
  12. Time Bomb: Godsmack
  13. Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards: Scissorfight
  14. Du Hast: Rammstein
  15. God Save the Queen: Sex Pistols
  16. You Think I’m Not Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire, Queens of the New Stone Age
  17. Jump Around: House of Pain
  18. Liberate: Slipknot
  19. She Sells Sanctuary: The Cult
  20. California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys

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Nov 28 2011

Favorite Things: Turnbull and Asser shirts

Published by under Favorite Things

When I was in college my girlfriends tended to dress me, and one in particular, decided that my preference for rowing shirts won off the backs of vanquished opponents, Grateful Dead concert t-shirts, and frayed collar button downs carried over from my prep school dress code days needed to be replaced with a new standard “Dave Look” based on white Brooks Brothers button downs and well faded blue Levi’s 505 classic jeans.  Brooks Brothers was different in the 1970s, still the standard bearer of the iconic American Ivy Traditional look, and because of my allegiance to all things Yale, I expanded to include a few button flap pocket J. Press shirts as that shop was the classic Dink Stover haberdasher of New Haven.

After thirty years of Brooks Brothers I finally decided enough was enough. The quality of the oxford cloth was deteriorating, everyone and their brother owned the same shirts, and button downs simply aren’t fashionable enough for someone in the digital creative world. I’ve always been accustomed to life spent in coat and tie thanks to my years in boarding school. Forbes was a good place to indulge in bow-ties and suits. But once I arrived at McKinsey at the nadir of the dot.bomb revolution I realized the older partners were lost trying to repurpose closets full of $8,000 Brioni suits into something resembling business casual. The pit of sartorial despair was Lenovo — the computer industry is the worst dressed collection of pleated Dockers, golf-shirt wearing conformists in the world. As one former colleague despaired, the look was pure Greg Norman.

One headhunter last summer gave me shit for showing up in a bowtie and said I needed to go more digitally hip. For example? I asked. Carry an iPad and dress like Bradley Cooper the guy said. I didn’t know who the hell Bradley Cooper was, but I had visions of being a tan-in-a-can douchebag in distressed fashion skinny jeans with a collarless shirt, hipster fedora, and some wasp waisted velvet blazer with a pink lining.

Feh. No thanks.

A couple years ago I sucked it up and went English, specifically Turnbull and Asser, and haven’t looked back since.  I can’t afford custom shirts — hell, Forbes.com in its annual “Living Extremely Well” index pegs a dozen bespoke T&A shirts at $4,380, a mere $365 a shirt. Me, I am content going off the rack, and being an American preppy at heart, can’t bring myself to go to french cuffs and cufflinks, so my cost per shirt is considerably less. Sure, a custom shirt would be a fantastic luxury, but I’m not living at that end of the sartorial closet where I have the right to insist on hand tailored suits from the likes of Huntsman, Thomas Mahon, or Gieves and Hawkes (someday, but not now).

One thing to be said for the Jermyn Street school of shirtings is the British don’t shy away from plumage and do a wild job with color and patterns. So, goodbye boring blue, white and pink Brooks Brothers, and hello to tattersalls, university stripes, spread collars and those nice little gussets that beef up the tails.  The shirts simply feel better and feeling good is the first step towards looking good. And thank heavens for the current office environment in Manhattan, something about working out of a mid-town townhouse behind the Museum of Modern Art demands a little more fashion effort than a Research Triangle office park.

5 responses so far

Sep 10 2011

Goodbye Ned

Ned, our 12-year old Skye Terrier, died today. I had to ease his suffering from liver cancer and I knew it was time when he stopped eating and the shine went out of his eyes. With his passing goes a family fixture that has been a part of our lives since the Christmas of 2000, when my daughter and I flew to Nashville to get him after our previous Skye, Harry, had died in the street under a car the month before.

Ned was named “Stormy” when we met him, named because he was born during a thunderstorm. He was eight months old at the time, a problem puppy who was bullied by his brothers and sisters and picked on by his own mother. Where Harry was a canine genius, one of the most intelligent dogs I’ve ever known, Ned was simple, a bit slow, a shy dog that gradually came out of his shell and thrived on the couch and the yard here in Cotuit that was his domain for his entire life.

He liked sharp cheddar cheese, snapped at dangled pieces of spaghetti and earned the nickname “Pasta Shark.” He slept under the stairs in what we called his Harry Potter bed. He rolled in stinky dead things because he liked the way it made him smell. He hated fireworks and thunder and banged on the bedroom door every night for sanctuary at the foot of my bed.

He hated having his butt inspected for dingle berries and would flip out into circles of animated play-rage, a behavior known as “Kawa-Kawa.” He knew few tricks, liked riding in the car with his head out the window, and was a bit of a lazy slug on beachwalks, once falling so far behind that he returned to the boat where he stood, in the shallows, paws on the gunwale, looking hopefully into the hull for some sign of us. He was a dog of many names, including: Count Dookoo, Gabba, Apartment Bear, Seal Pig, Sewer Pipe, Nedly, and others that I can’t remember now.

Ned was my daughter’s dog from the very beginning. She came to Nashville with me, 13-years old, and helped me squeeze him into a dog carrier bag because the airline wouldn’t let dogs travel in the luggage compartment. We let him out in the terminal and he immediately peed on the rug, ears huge like radar dishes, and went into his first of his crazy kawa-kawa circles.  We let him poke his head out of the bag during the flight and fell in love with him then and there.

Skye Terriers are a rare breed, one of the least registered every year with the AKC and in danger of extinction in Britain. They are the oldest of the terriers — the ur terrier if you will — the basis for most modern terrier breeds. They are big hairy dogs — 30 to 40 pounds — with the legs of a dwarf, giving them the appearance of a large eared grey and black dachshund crossed with a sheep dog. They are stubborn but intensely loyal to one owner. One, Greyfriar’s Bobby, was renowned in 19th century Scotland for guarding his master’s grave for 14 years.

Dogs break our hearts and sometimes give us our first childhood exposure to grief. We’re better for having them in our lives, and I note how my life is punctuated by one dog after another.

No one said it sadder than Pablo Neruda in his poem, A Dog Has Died

 

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Sep 08 2011

The Art of the Note

Published by under Favorite Things

With the United States Postal Service on the verge of bankruptcy, and the kind folks at the Cotuit Post Office telling me they need my business to stay open, I write this paean to the mail of snails in the hope that one of the last best things in the world — the handwritten note — survives.

I think Guy Kawasaki once wrote that a handwritten note sent in congratulations, condolence or commiseration is infinitely more heartfelt and well received than a ephemeral email, tweet or blog comment. I was never a big thank you note writer as a kid, but for over a decade I’ve tried to do my epistolary best by keeping at least a half-dozen blank note cards and stamped envelopes in my briefcase or bag. My handwriting sucks (so I print), but it only takes a minute or so to jot down a few words that will be remembered for a far longer time.

In the late 1980s, after writing a cover story for Forbes and winning a couple prizes for it, a friend of my late father wrote me a note that said, in effect, if the old gent were alive today he’d be very proud of you and how you’ve turned out.  I don’t think any praise has meant more to me in my life. Would I have the the compassion to put pen to paper and do the same for some other young person beginning their career and finding their first success? I hope I would.

In the mid-90s Henry Kissinger wrote me a sarcastic letter in the mistaken belief I was the editor in chief of Forbes because the magazine had somehow screwed up the facts concerning him, Richard Nixon, and a bottle of wine consumed in China. I hung onto that one too.

I write on notecards I order from Merrimade, an old WASP institution that used to be based in the Merrimack Valley and was owned by one of my neighbors growing up in Andover, Mass.. They sold the company to Crane years ago, but the quality is the same, and where else can you order note cards with your name on it, or the name of your country estate with a little yacht emblem? (I am stealing the idea of naming my future country estate “Morningwood” from my pal Ham Freeman)

I send them to friends when they get promoted or take a new job, when pets or grandparents join the invisible choir, or just to say thanks for helping me out. Takes but a minute, keeps the postman employed, sticks it to the email demons and can yield tweets like this one. My favorite note of all time, courtesy of Christopher Buckley is this unprintable gem.

 

 

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Aug 01 2011

Music solutions

With my music in the cloud and freed from the tyrannical clutches of iTunes, I next turned to the question of how to make it truly portable, especially how to get it on the boat. I juiced the memory on my HTC EVO smartphone to 32 gb with a miniSD card and find that I’m running either the Amazon Cloud Player when on the household wifi, downloading stuff locally for playback on the phone when I’m in the middle of Nantucket Sound and too far away from the cell towers, or streaming from Last.fm when I’m too lazy to deal with setlists of my own stuff.

When I was a iPod person I had one of those iPod dock things — an expensive Bose thing that required a wall socket. Battery powered portable speakers are generally terrible, but the New York Times recently reviewed a bunch of wireless Bluetooth speakers and I went with David Pogue’s recommendation for the Soundmatters FoxL unit. It’s not cheap — I paid close to $200 on Amazon — but it uses a rechargeable Li-Ion battery and cranks very loud volumes when needed. Oh, and did I say it’s wireless? This means no proprietary slot connector for the iPod/iPhone, just a discoverable Bluetooth connection that I can hit with my Thinkpad, iPad, the wife and kid’s iPhones or my Android EVO. The range is decent, but anything beyond 15 feet gives it some issues.

My favorite application for the unit is to tether it to my iPad while I’m watching Red Sox games when I’m on the road in NYC. I am tired of having ear buds jammed into my ears for hours and love the freedom to prop the iPad up and just watch it like the tiny television it was meant to be.

Three weeks and I am very happy with this portable sound solution. The unit is solid, small, and very easy to set up and use. The sound is excellent. This toy is definitely moving into the category of favorite things. Now to figure out cloud music in the car and life will be complete.

 

 

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Jun 02 2011

Guilty Pleasures – Electrocuting flies

Published by under Favorite Things

This has transformed my life and ended the lives of hundred of flies. Talk about better mousetraps.

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May 29 2011

Winter in America: Gil Scott-Heron

Published by under Favorite Things

One of the great voices of American poetry and music has passed. Gil Scot Herron. This song, Winter in America, has stuck in my head since first hearing it in the 1970s.

YouTube Preview Image

 

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May 02 2011

Happy May

What better way to celebrate the First of May than a day game at that “lyric little bandbox” of  a ballpark, Fenway Park, aka the Shrine?

Surviving Grady put it best:

“It couldn’t have been scripted any better in Hollywood. The aging veteran pitching well in a spot-start. The aging DH coming up with a big hit. The much-maligned reliever…never mind, Jenks still sucked. And for the finale, the struggling free agent with a walk-off RBI single to win it.”

 

Taking it all in with my son at my side and fresh scorebook in my lap, to quote the cliche: priceless.


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Sep 10 2010

Driving down the dial

Published by under Favorite Things

Three driving trips to NYC from Cotuit over the past month has taught me the importance of a decent car iPod dock — mine having failed and degenerating into weird behavior — or a decent set of FM radio presets to keep me from going insane on the long stretches through southeastern Massachusetts, southern Rhode Island and the interminable stretch between New London and New Haven. The trip is exactly 250 miles from the village to mid-town and I can do it in four hours, rush hour traffic and late summer road construction permitting.

Phone calls cut the time the fastest, interesting how interacting directly with someone cuts the sense of time. My second preferred form of aural entertainment is podcasts (remember those?), ranging from college courses downloaded from iTunes (I tend towards history and philosophy), cycling podcasts, and geek casts like the Gillmor Gang (if I can find it as it comes and goes). With the iPod dock in bad shape, I have devolved to the radio, and this past trip resolved to take one of the band of presets and once and for all organize a series of station pre-sets to coincide with the 250 miles haul.

One thing stands clear — I am a left-side of the dial guy. Why the crap stations dominate the 100’s is a mystery, but down in the 80s and 90s live the little college stations and NPR affiliates, places where anarchy and eclecticism rule the airwaves and the advertising is nonexistent.

National Public Radio can be a good thing. And I start the trip at 5 am in the dark listening to the BBC World Update — the Economist of the ether — catching up on the suicide bombings and coups in various banana republics as read by the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious Dan Damon. WGBH — one of the oldest public radio stations in the country, has a monster signal that reaches from Boston to the Cape. The joke locally is GBH either stands for Great Blue Hill (the location of the transmitter in Milton) or God Bless Harvard because the studios are so close to Harvard Stadium in Allston. Locally, the NPR affiliate is WCAI at 90.1. I like CAI (Cape And Islands) because its general manager Jay Allison was such an early force on The W.E.L.L. in the 1980s and their local programming, particularly the local food report, is generally excellent. What I cannot abide is John Hockenberry’s The Takeaway due to their pernicious belief that adding high-tech noises to intros and outros makes the news cool.

GBH and CAI could carry me through Providence Rhode Island and beyond, but once I get to Mattapoisset and Marion I switch over to theUniversity of Massachusetts Dartmouth station, WUMD (89.3) because I love student DJs and some of the very bizarre stuff they play in the early morning hours. UMD isn’t the strongest station in the world, and catering to the local Portugese population one can find a lot of Brazilian pop which — language issues primarily — is unlistenable after a song or two. Some of the more progressive programming is interesting though.

New Bedford at sunrise is a poignant place, recalling one November morning in 1978 when I was hitchhiking from the Cape back to New Haven to make classes after a sad weekend with my father. I stood in the breakdown lane across from the crematorium in the Fairhaven Cemetary, flapping my arms in my thin denim jacket, singing “Black Throated Wind” and swigging from a pint of blackberry brandy to keep my spirits up. Years later,  over coffee at Farley’s on Potrero Hill, I told John Perry Barlow, the writer of that song, about that morning, and how a capella I had managed to make BTW my favorite Grateful Dead song, even if it had first appeared on Bob Weir’s Ace album. He was, I think, flattered.

Then I was picked up by some teenagers in a fast TransAm and had to endure some head banging music which destroyed the mood until they were pulled over for speeding in Stonington.

In Fall River, as the car crests the eternally repainted Braga Bridge, I take advantage of Narragansett Bay and the strong signal beaming up from the south from the University of Rhode Island’s station, WRIU, 90.3, where on Thursday morning the DJ played a solid hour of Les Paul’s work, delving into interesting digressions about how Les Paul did not design the famous Gibson guitar bearing his name, but lent his name to it. That was awesome, listening to Les Paul and Fred Waring, and other stalwarts of popular radio from the late 30s, 40s, and 50s, the signal getting stronger as I plowed through Providence and down the long scrubby stretch of West and East Greenwich, Exeter and South Kingstown, site of the infamous massacre of the Narragansetts in 1675 by the combined forces of the colonia militias in what is known as the Great Swamp Fight.

WRIU can be my favorite station on the entire four hour trip, but it dies in New London where a huge void opens up in the dial space as there seems to be no great station there. I need to tune into WCNI, Connecticut College’s 2000 watt transmitter on the next trip, but haven’t dialed into it as of yet.

Coming out of New London, in the space between the Thames and the Connecticut Rivers — near Lyme, famous for the tick and the disease it carries — I tune to WPKN, 89.5, the University of Bridgeport station, which is one of the oldest and most progressive public radio stations on the coast. Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to hear Jim Motavelli, on the air as the DJ. He interviewed me in the late 90s when I was at Forbes.com in a book he wrote about the impact of new media on the traditional press: Bamboozled at the Revolution and described my “droll, preppy demeanor.” PKN was in the middle of its fall fundraiser — usually a sure repellent that has me hitting the buttons for the next non-mendicancy station.

By Stamford, with NYC just a few dozen miles away, I switch to the final station of the trip, Fordham University’s WFUV, which is another NPR affiliate that plays a ton of good music. FUV, which is based in the Bronx and has a strong transmitter, stays with me down the FDR and into whatever mid-town garage is going to take me down for $50 in parking.

I’m sure my next car will have XM radio and stay tuned to the Grateful Dead station most of the time — a predictable shame given the delights of college radio.

9 responses so far

Aug 14 2010

The Year the Team Missed The Parade

Okay, so the Fourth of July water fight was getting a little out of hand but the baseball team started it, or actually the EPAC Grotto’s peeing clam float started it, but that’s my theory. The local landscape company towed a trailer the size of a tennis court behind a big dump truck and loaded it with the best college baseball teams in the country. Young men at the peak of their capabilities, armed with SuperSoakers the size of Iwo Jima flamethrowers and an endless supply of softball-sized water balloons, wreaking havoc down Main Street from the Kettle-Ho to the elementary school.

Someone was sure to get hurt. Some toddler diving for a piece of penny candy was going to get crushed beneath the trailer wheels like a fanatic hurling himself under the wheels of the legendary Juggernaut. Old ladies in lawn chairs were being rudely entered into a bad wet t-shirt contest that no one wanted to judge. We had to defend ourselves, and over the years the sidewalks were lined with garden hoses, pressure washers, water cannons and the war was on, escalating to the point that finally reason had to step in and say enough.

The Cotuit Kettleers sat out the 2010 Cotuit Fourth of July parade and the village was upset.

Would we take out our aggressions on the Mason’s Mariner Lodge, and do away with a dozen old men wearing white shirts and natty little aprons? Would the librarians get it next? What could be done? The omission of the boys of summer was the talk of the counter at the post office. We were mad. A ritual had been taken away from us.

The season had already opened in early June, when snowflakes still could be imagined in the rickety wooden bleachers in the shade along the third base line at Elizabeth Lowell Memorial Park, the gem of all the Cape Cod Baseball League’s ballparks, an oasis carved out of the pines and oaks a few hundred yards away from Cotuit Bay. Was this our year? Had coach Mike Roberts (UNC Chapel Hill’s coach from 1976 to 1998 and father of Oriole second baseman Brian Roberts) recruited a dugout full of superstars? It was impossible to tell. June was a difficult month, of rosters churned by the College World Series, the Super Regionals, Team USA try outs, and even the Major League scouts knew not to come with their radar guns as the college freshmen and sophomores made the wrenching transition from metal to wooden bats. The scouts would come, trying to answer the question we all asked:

Who would be the next major league superstars? They were out there, on the dusty basepaths and achingly green outfield. We knew they were out there, every summer revealed them to us. Chase Utley. Ron Darling. Mo Vaughn. Jason Varitek. Kevin Youkilis. Nomar Garciaparra. All had once stepped up to the plate, dove for liners, fumbled and stumbled for our ticket-free enjoyment on the hallowed grounds of Lowell Park. But who were they? We wouldn’t know for a few years, not realizing that the tanned pitcher who sold us our 50-50 raffle tickets in the stands would soon be standing on the mound at Wrigley or Petco or Fenway heaving heat on national television. What was clear was how blessed we were to be living in the town with the team that had won the most championships in the country’s most prestigious amateur baseball league, the league where the best of the best came to learn how to swing wood and get noticed by the scouts.

As the season progressed one learned to pick one’s place in the bleachers very carefully, to arrive precisely 45 minutes early while the basepaths were being hosed down and the coaches spraypainted new baselines. The musical cliches of the game blared through the PA – a weird playlist of country music, jump-around fist-pumping hip hop, and hair band anthems that we wished would just stop — and we all snickered at the interns behind the microphone who mispronounced “Cotuit” and referred to Cape Cod as “The” Cape Cod. Top row, back corner, brown paper sack of popcorn from the Kettleer’s Kitchen and a bottle of Poland Springs. Layout the scorecard, fill in the teams, the date, the names of the umps, the start time, and wait for the announcer to list the lineups. A few rows down, the founder of the dynasty, Arnold Mycock, for whom the Cape Cod Baseball League championship trophy is named, dean of the scorers, always presented early with the coaches’ lineups by an intern sent from the press box. Avoid sitting near the bozos — cell phone man who loudly calls his friends and always repeats the same silly cliches “…it’s the best wooden bat league in the country …,” anyone with kids under the age of ten, the Fountain of Misinformation who plaintively repeats over and over the obvious plea to the pitcher to “Throw Strikes.”

Rise for the National Anthem, cap over heart, as Nicky Chevalier takes the microphone out to home plate and we all look out to centerfield, the maroon (or is it Cranberry) uniformed Kettleers standing in a long line in front of their dugout, everyone’s eyes on the flag waving flaccid in the summer southwesterly breeze.

Play ball.

The pitcher superstitiously skips over the third baseline on his way to the mound. The umps and coaches swap line ups at home plate. The announcer reads the same script he’ll read at every game. The first pitch it thrown out by some account manager from Wells Fargo Private Wealth Advisors LLC. Their picture is taken with the catcher, they are handed the ball as a souvenir, the only one that will be given out as balls are too precious to give away blithely like they are in the majors. Shag a foul ball and return it to the red tent for a coupon to the Kettleer’s Kitchen.

And so it goes for 22 home games. The same routine, the same script, the same vista, the same rules, the same nine innings. But the players are all new. Few ever return for a second season. Yet instantly they become Our Team, their names gradually memorized through rote and repetition until they are as familiar as nephews at a family reunion.

Would this be the year? Cotuit hadn’t won the champs since 1999 and Coach Roberts didn’t have a title on his mantle yet. Bandy legged from years of hitting of swinging a fungo bat during batting practice, he gamely rises from the dugout and takes his place before us in the third base coach’s box, semaphoring hand signals and truly coaching his new charges in the art of Roberts Small Ball, a game of bunts and steals, and devious tricks like the mythical Hidden Ball Trick. His temper is wonderful to behold, a mixture of ferocious indignation and bewilderment over the genetic stupidity of umpires and the appalling rudeness of the visiting team’s fans, all philistines who should know when to sit down and shut up in the presence of his righteousness.

My scorebook gradually fills with the record of games won and lost. Exclamation points cryptically marking moments of greatness, moments uncaptured on film, lost in a park with no replay, no statisticians, no grotesque mascot dressed like a kettle. Sweat stains mark the heat waves. Mustard the hot dogs. Every page has a dogeared greasiness from the popcorn butter.

The girls in their summer clothes parade back and forth behind the dugout trying to catch a ballplayer’s eye. Vacationing bozos in Yankee caps self-consciously preen. Every foul ball into the parking lot where only a fool would park is greeted with a warning of “Heads Up!” and cheers as yet another windshield gets smashed with a spidery thunk and the line at the snack bar cowers and holds their hands over their heads.

The sailors from the yacht club arrive in the fourth inning, salt stained, barefoot and sunburned. “What’d I miss?” they ask. And I dutifully read back the highlights from the scorecard. “Bushyhead lined to third into a double play. Coach intimidated the visiting Meat into a balk. Yaz hit a dinger to center. And there’s a yellow jacket nest behind the the bathrooms that just attacked a herd of anklebiters and made them cry.”

The lack of a parade concerned us. Would it cast a dark cloud of bad luck on the home team?  Cotuit baseball fans fight all change. “The day they install lights is the day I stop coming.” But no parade? It was wrong. Something would happen and it wouldn’t be good.

It did happen. And it was good. Yesterday the Kettleers won the championship in a beautiful post-season run that saw them sweep their way into the finals against the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. I missed it, obligated to attend a meeting, but the game played on my phone, a little window of video that suddenly saw a flood of cranberry colored uniforms rush the mound, silent with the audio muted, a clutch of bouncing hopping happy young men surrounding a weathered coach with tears in his eyes.

from the Cape Cod Times

There won’t be any parade this year. In the 70s, when the Kettleers won a consecutive string of championships, the fans would drive up and down Main Street for an hour blaring their car horns. But last night the village was quiet, chilled with a harbinger of the fall to come, silent except for the emerging crickets.

There won’t be any parade this year. The players have scattered back home or back to college. Soon the Volvos and Range Rovers will file out of town, pink children’s bikes on their racks, back to what seems to be an earlier and earlier start of school every year. The skiffs will be hauled. The yacht club dock dismantled and stacked in the bushes. And the town will go quiet for nine months, waiting for them to return.

I’ve quoted it before, but I must quote it again, Bartlett Giamatti, late President of Yale, former commissioner of baseball, quoted in this summer’s baseball sermon by my friend (who also has sadly moved away) the Reverend Jeremy Nickel, quite possibly the saddest obituary of summer and baseball that I know:

[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”


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Jul 04 2010

Hero worship and suspension of belief

Published by under Favorite Things

The Tour de France kicked off yesterday — I watched the Rotterdam prologue off the Tivo last night — and caught Lance’s solo ride through the streets with mixed emotion, caught up the explicit allegations of doping leveled against him by his disgraced former lieutenant, Floyd Landis.  I have been a cycling romantic since the 1970s, when the movie Breaking Away inspired me to take my grandmother’s college graduation present and convert it into a classic Raleigh 12-speed racing bike that I rode all around New Haven and Cape Cod in a pair of sneakers and gym shorts. It was the European mystique of the sport, the wonder of what I think is arguably man’s most noble form of transportation, the sensation of flying down the rolling hills of the mid-Cape that addicted me to cycling forever.

In 2004, when Lance won the Tour, I was inspired to get back into cycling with a vengeance, pouring thousands of dollars into the helmets, shoes, gruppos I was ignorant of in the 1980s. Soon I was putting in hundreds of miles per week, hauling myself around the back roads of Cape Cod with my friends.

That all ended over Memorial Day weekend in 2006 when I was hit head on by a car and absolutely destroyed myself in a disastrous crash. So ended my cycling, forbidden by a wife unable to think about me out there in harm’s way, a would-be organ donor at the mercy of every teenage drive texting away behind the wheel.

Yet still every July I tune into the dulcet tones of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin calling the most extraordinary athletic contest in the world, one so brutal that yes, indeed, to survive the riders turn to testosterone patches, EPO, and blood transfusions.

And yes, I remain in awe of Lance, his comeback, his survival, his fighter’s spirit. It’s just very sad to see him in this, his last Tour, saying his farewell to a sport he transformed under the damning cloud of Landis’ specific and detailed allegations.

I don’t know if I will watch again after this.

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