Friday, February 27, 2009


As a parent, I've learned that young kids have really got a lot to learn. I realize that I'm an educated adult, but I don't think that it really takes that much intelligence to realize that camping in February is not the greatest idea in the world.

This whole idea started when my six-year-old, who is in kindergarten and therefore has not had the benefit of a lot of formal education, told me what we--yes, WE--we were going camping with some of his friends and their fathers. I'm sure that in his mind, camping conjures up images of s'mores by the fire, no baths, and a lot of running around. In other words, life at home, but with fire added. I, of course, thought immediately about the last time I took my kids camping and how my feet were freezing in our flimsy tent.

But I didn't immediately dismiss the idea. This was way back in January, after all, and I figured that the idea would fade away. But it didn't. And now the weekend is here. Tonight I'll pack the car and tomorrow we'll head north--NORTH! Where it's colder!--to camp overnight at Merck Forest and Farmland Center.

It won't be so bad; I know I'll have fun. But I'm worried that someone will get cold and that I'll forget something crucial. I also don't know how much beer to bring with me. I have to factor in the distance between the car and the cabin and how we'll be able to haul the beer, and the fact that I'm camping with relative strangers. If I bring too much beer, I'm the alcoholic dad. If I bring too little, everyone will be unhappy.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Does It Make Me A Bad Person?

As I was driving this afternoon, I passed a car with a cup of coffee on its roof. I may be a horrible person for taking such glee in another person's foibles--and God knows I've done the same thing--but I thought it was the funniest thing I've seen in a while.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Good Show

Back in the days before cable television, when ABC's Wide World of Sports was the only way to see the unusual or outrageous sporting events, February was when the Harlem Globetrotters were on, and for the pre-teen set in the 1970's, that was must-see TV. This was when Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal and Marques Haynes were on the roster and every year after watching them on TV, kids would engage in serious debates about exactly how many championships the Globetrotters would win if they played in the NBA (the general consensus, depending on the age of the debater, of course, was that the Globetrotters would probably win it all every year, but it would be understandable if, due to injuries or whatnot, they would occasionally make to the finals and not win).

Now we are saturated with televised sporting events, from football and baseball to table tennis, bull riding, and competitive eating. With so much sporting noise out there, I imagine it's hard for the Globetrotters to make much of a splash. But I look forward to their visit to our area every February, and this year we were actually able to make it to the show. I was a little worried that my nine-year-old son might be a little too old and might see through the shenanigans, but he was way into it, as was his six-year-old brother. After the game, which the Globetrotters won in a tight match, my older son said to me,with great relief in his voice, "Boy, I didn't think the Globetrotters were going to pull that one out."

They mixed in some new routines and delivered on all of the old standards. And now I can't wait until next year.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Disagree With You, So Shut Up!

A couple of years ago, I attended a City Council meeting to see how the Counil would vote on a new ordinance. This was the first time I'd been in Council Chambers to see my city government in action.

I found a seat in the second row and before the meeting started, I saw one City Councilor approach two people in front of me, supporters of the measure in question. "Don't worry," she whispered to them with a wink, "it's in the bag."

Later in the meeting, after many members of the public got up to speak in favor of and against the ordinance, the City Council finally got around to taking a vote. It passed easily.

Now, I'll admit to being a bit naive back then about how much drama is really involved in a vote that comes up before the City Council, but I was really disturbed to see, up close, how the game can be so rigged sometimes.

Which brings me to the drama unfolding in Amherst, where Dr. Catherine Sanderson, Amherst College professor and School Committee member, keeps a blog where she deliberates very openly on the issues. At the most recent School Committee meeting, a member of the public scolded Dr. Sanderson for keeping a blog, saying that it made her uncomfortable to hear (or read) public officials giving their opinions. (You can see video here, on another Amherst blog).

I find this shocking. It's clear to me what the speaker meant is that she's uncomfortable with the fact that Dr. Sanderson doesn't agree with her. It's not the medium Dr. Sanderson is using to express her opinion that's the problem; it's the opinion. The implication is that people should keep dissenting or disturbing opinions to themselves. The implication is that blogs are somehow evil because they allow people to express their opinions.

It's chilling to think that people can believe that an appropriate way to respond to someone who disagrees with you is to find a way to silence that person.

The same principle applies, by the way, to people who maintain but don't allow people to comment.

I want my public officials to be open about how and why they vote they way they do, and a blog can be a perfect platform for sharing that information. I applaud Dr. Sanderson's blogging efforts and hope that she'll continue to show how effective a good blogger can be.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

As I continue my travails in the car-buying world, I had my only existing car appraised by a dealer to figure out its trade-in value. This car is 14 years old. I bought it nine years ago, just after my first son was born. The cruise control has never worked in the time I've owned the car, and neither has the lock for the trunk (it can only be opened by the release inside the car). The heat has been sketchy for the last couple of years, which made from some really cold commutes to Boston in 2006 and 2007 when I worked for a company based there. And for some reason that I can't quite figure out, the windows have a terrible habit of fogging up all the time. One day last summer, I came outside and saw that overnight, the clear coat on the hood of the car had failed, and now there are these two big funny-looking ovals on the hood. The car only has two hubcaps.

Oh, and did I mention that a few months after I bought the car in 1999 I had to replace the engine? Somewhat ironically, the fact that I had to replace the engine is what stopped me from getting rid of the car for so long: the engine has 30,000 fewer miles on it than the rest of the car. In fact, it has barely gone over 100,000.

I've never been a car guy in the sense that I like to tinker with them or that I have to have the latest model every three years. For me, cars are strictly utilitarian. I suppose I get that from my father, who had only one new car that I can remember. I can remember riding in a station wagon with a hole in the floor that we rode around in when I was a kid. I can remember the 1969 Firebird my father had when I first learned how to drive, to one that didn't have a gas pedal, which meant that you had to step on the metal bar that a gas pedal should have been attached to to make the car go. And the car that my father had before he bought a new on in the 90s was a 1965 baby blue Ford Falcon. My father loved that car, and I think of him every time I drive past the house near the intersection of Ryan Road, Florence Road, and Pine Street that has the Ford Falcon Parking sign at the end of its driveway.

I hated that car because when I was a senior in high school and I had to drive somewhere, the car wasn't cool enough. It had a lot of rust and an original AM/FM radio and power-nothing. It did have a bench front seat, though, which made it easy to snuggle up with my date.

That car met its demise in a car crusher when my father dropped it off at the junk yard. He hadn't even made it out of the parking lot when they unceremoniously destroyed it right in front of him. For years later, my father would tell the story of how devastating it was to see that car reduced to a cube of steel and plastic right in front of him. I never understood what the big deal was, until now.

They offered my $300 for the car. They offered me $300 for MY car, and they did it without any pangs of guilt, without any compassion. To them, the fabric hanging from the interior ceiling is a flaw and not the result of my older son growing up back there; it's a sign of triumph that he could finally reach the ceiling.

Cold-hearted bastards.

I never knew what it was like to love a car, until now, when I have to give it away.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Car Wreck

So, we got the word that as a result of the car accident, our car was totaled. That means that we're now officially in the market for a new (or new-to-us) car. I've spent time researching cars and inventory and dealers on the Internet and girded my loins for dealing with those evil car salesmen.

First, I have to say that car dealers should be ashamed of some of the features that they choose to list for their cars on their websites. Among my favorites:

Remote hood/fuel-filler door & pwr trunk releases
I think the fuel-filler door remote and the power trunk release are good features, but I have to say that the appeal of a remote hood release is lost on me. I mean, not only do I find it unlikely that there have been many cars manufactured in the last 30 years that don't have this feature, but 99 times out of a hundred, once you pop the hood, you have to get outside anyway, so it's not as if the remote release really saves any time. And if I their wants to get under the hood of your car, I'm sure the remote release isn't really preventing much.

Tachometer, coolant temp & fuel gauges

That's right: I can buy a car with a fuel gauge. No more stopping and using my homemade gas tank dip stick to check the fluid level.

Pwr windows w/driver-side auto-up/down & auto-reverse

I have to admit to being a little curious about this one. I understand the auto-up/down part, but what's auto reverse? I would think that would mean going up or down--the opposite of the way it was going, but it just seems odd.

Other items actually highlighted as features include a clock and an AM/FM radio. Enough said.

We called one dealership to ask about a car we saw online. We played it cool and didn't tell the salesperson that we'd seen the price online. "How much is that car?" we asked. The salesperson quoted a price that was almost $2,000 more than what we'd seen online.

"That's interesting," I said. "The price on your website is lower than the price you just quoted me."

"Well," he said. "The website guys are sometimes late with their updates to the site." Which means, apparently, that when they make updates, they're increasing the prices.

The more cars I look at and the more salespeople I deal with, the more I grow to dislike the woman who destroyed our car.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Good News for News?

I'm an avid reader of the Gazette. I like the way it covers local news, though the business model (a pay website?) and frequent errors, grammatical and typographical, drive me nuts. But deep down, I root for the Gazette--and all newspapers--because I think there's something really special about the physical activity of reading a newspaper. Of course, I have noticed the bucket loads of bad news that have been hovering around the newspaper industry lately, and lately I've found myself thinking about what a post-newspaper world will look like.

Okay, I haven't really done that last part.

But amid all the doom-and-gloom predictions for the end of the newspaper as we know it, I came across a bit of good news. Last weekend, my family and I were in a car accident at the intersection of Prospect and Jackson Streets. We were all fine, but the car has seen better days.

At any rate, there was an item about the accident in the paper on Monday. Since then, many people have asked if we're okay; they've all said that they read about the accident in the paper.

I appreciate their concern, as it really makes me appreciate living in a town where people look out for each other. And I don't know if they're paying customers or not, but it shows that they're reading the paper.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I Told You Those Animals Were Up To Something

Sure enough, one of them critters up and bites New York City's Mayor on Groundhog Day.

Don't say you weren't warned.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Groundhog Day Is Just A Diversionary Tactic

I finished my dissertation over 10 years ago. When I was in the middle of doing it, it seemed like it would take me a lifetime to finish it. Now it seems like I finished it a lifetime ago.

I was reminded of my dissertation days when I read this article about dead starlings raining down in New Jersey. It seems that the FDA spread around some stuff poison the birds on a Friday afternoon and then took off for the weekend without telling anyone that there might be a bunch of dead birds around pretty soon. The birds they targeted with their eradication program were starlings.

I did my dissertation on the short stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle and one of his short stories has to do with a flock of starlings taking over a town. I first learned the history of starlings in this country by reading that story: starlings were introduced to the United States by a man obsessed with populating America with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. From 100 pair released in Central Park in the 1890s, the population of starlings now rivals that of people in the United States, a total of about 300 million birds.

I was disappointed in reading the account of the dead birds that the writer recounted the story of the Central Park bird release. That was my tidbit, my cocktail party "did you know." It's much easier to work that into a conversation than the satiric implications of a author's fictious doppleganger. Talking about simply leads to a lot of funny looks. Trust me on that.

So last week, as I was digging out of the latest snow storm, I was thinking about starlings when I suddenly became aware of a flock of birds doing highly active bird things all around me. Here's a picture of the flock in a bush. I apologize for the quality, but it was as close as I could get without making them fly away.

This is a flock of robins, birds that are associated with the coming of spring. On a cold day when I was outsde shoveling and cursing under my breath as the rain turned to freezing rain, I found myself surrounded by robins. I could only conclude that they were mocking me in some way.

Just like that damned Punxatwaney Phil, who today saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter.

I'm telling you, the animals are up to something.