Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Unexpected Visitors (Another in an Irregular Series of Very Long Stories), Part One: Fairly Aggressive Birds

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. As I write this, it is Sunday, July 24. Depending on whether or not I can cadge some connectivity in the next several days, this may not be posted until next Monday or Tuesday. But, I have not forsaken you.

On Saturday last, Monkey and I headed west on our now-annual pilgrimage to the Rockies. Our first full day (Sunday) was spent in Boulder. Monkey was meeting some friends she knew in the area, and The Ambassadors and I wandered around the Pearl District, shopping, having lunch, and being called “home dwellers” by one of the myriad homeless ragamuffins that sometimes makes me think that Boulder is the slightly older, American version of Oliver Twist. The highlight of the trip to Boulder, for me, was my now-annual visit to the Boulder Bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Inner Life of Numbers, Oryx and Crake, Chasing the White Dog, and a couple of other titles that caught my eye. Monkey might think I have a compulsion when it comes to buying books from independent bookstores…she’s right.

But not only did we visit with friends while in Colorado, but we were visited frequently, and unexpectedly, on several occasions.

Our first hike of the week was a reprise of a hike that we were forced to abandon two years ago due to inclement weather. If you recall, a hike to Finch Lake was curtailed by persistent rain and hail that drenched us to the bone. This year’s hike was much drier.

After a breakfast of Meadow Mountain eggs and sausage, we trucked up to the Allenspark Trailhead, where we started our nine mile round trip to Finch. Over all, the hike is not terribly interesting. There are a few moments along a ridge, where the once burned-over forest is open enough to provide some pretty views of neighboring peaks, but the hike saves its treasure until the end, really.

We arrived at Finch Lake just in time to enjoy a traditional PB and J lunch by the rocky and grassy shore. The air danced with freshly hatched mayflies, the water teemed with water striders and diving bugs. I sat on a boulder and gazed into the shallows of the lake, on each side of me, The Ambassadors enjoyed their sandwiches. In the periphery of my vision, I saw a flash. Behind me, Monkey let out a muffled, “Ah!” and jumped up from her perch. I turned around to see a gray flash flutter up into the trees.

“What happened,” an Ambassador asked.

“That bird just tried to take my apple!”

A gray jay had swooped from its perch and tried to pilfer Monkey’s lunchtime desert. And so, we had the first of several unexpected visitors. Lucky for Monkey, she was unscathed by the sortie, but she was clearly shaken, and no wonder, since the gray jay was still waiting in the trees above her to make another attack. However, after a few minutes, the bird began moving off, leaving Monkey to finish her apple in relative peace.

After twenty tense minutes, in which Monkey ate her apple with one eye on the trees, we hitched our packs back up and headed down to the trail head. The sky stayed dry. We made it back to the trail head in good time, headed back to the Brown Cabin, and began discussions to decide our next day’s hike.

(Posted from the Wicomico County Public Library. Odds of another post before Sunday: slim.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Where I Can Be

So I’m packing my bags for the Misty Mountains

Where the spirits go, now.

Over the hills where the spirits fly.

--Led Zeppelin, “Misty Mountain Hop”

Early Saturday morning, Monkey and I are packing the Penguin and heading west for the Rocky Mountains. I look forward to this trip every year. Nothing brings me peace like being in or near the mountains.

Growing up, my family vacation was always to the east: the ocean. And, every year, I looked forward to that trip. I loved nothing more than rising before dawn, packing the car and taking a three hour (if we were lucky) drive to the Atlantic shore. I loved the roar of the surf, the smell of the ocean, the heat of the sun, the feel of the sand under foot. I loved to hear the cry of gulls. I loved the nightly trips to the crowded boardwalk, the ice cream, the vinegar-coated fries. I loved steamed crabs and fried chicken. I loved walking the beach and swimming in the breakers. But, as I recall those trips, there was very little peace. Of course, a ten year-old boy usually isn’t looking for peace, is he?

Once I moved from Maryland, trips to the ocean became less frequent. I did not miss them as much as I thought I would. And, once we made it out here to Nebraska, we discovered the Rockies an eight hour drive away. And here, I found a place that I may have always been looking for.

I feel a sense of happiness in the mountains. I feel clean, alive, refreshed; I feel like I am where I ought to be. I don’t have a clue why that is the way this place makes me feel, and I feel like questioning it is pointless. I just love being there.

There is indeed something about these mountains that other mountains I have experienced, namely the Appalachians, do not possess. The Cascades have a bit of it, but it is not the same. There is an awe and a majesty to the Rockies that other ranges that I have experienced (and granted, that is a limited sample) do not possess.

I feel, at this point, that this is about to descend into an even more random ramble than usual, so let me bring this to an I-have-to-go-to-bed-so-I-can-get-up-at-six-and-drive-eight-hours-tomorrow close. I am off for the mountains tomorrow, and I am going to love every minute I am there, and leaving in a week will be one of the hardest things I have to do this year.

Ironically, the following week, I will be heading back east to hit the beach. Don’t expect me to wax poetic about that (but I will have a damn good time, anyway).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Yankee Arrogance

Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

--Simon and Garfunkle, "Mrs. Robinson"

Last night’s MLB All-Star game was a bore. It started with a “titans of baseball” worthy pitcher’s duel, as Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee, and Dave Robertson twirled against each league’s starting line-up, and then became just another game as “big” names like Tyler Clippard and Miguel Montero entered the field. In the end, the NL beat the AL 5-1 and I was in bed by 10:30. Who is complaining?

Well, I guess I am. It has become standard the past few days to gripe about the number of ball players who declined their invitation to play in the game. Many were injured, Alex Rodriguez and David Price, for instance, and were unable to play. Some had pitched too recently to pitch again on Tuesday (but don’t tell Cy Young that), such as Justin Verlander, and CC Sabathia. Still others were simply overwhelmed by the day-to-day pressure of their job and needed a break, like Derek Jeter.

I am no fan of the Yankees, you may know, but I have always had a healthy amount of respect for team captain Jeter. He always seemed to play the game the right way, he always seemed to be in the mix during the biggest moments of the biggest games, he always seemed like a winner, but, more importantly, he always seemed like a winner who won with integrity. No cheating, no scandal, no negativity seemed to touch this apparent paragon of America’s game. Until now.

Just this past week, Derek Jeter reached a milestone in the career of any great hitter. He reached 3000 career hits, a feat only 25 or so other ballplayers have done in the more than 100-year history of the game. And he did it in spectacular fashion, going 5 for 5 on the day, driving in his team’s winning run, and hitting a home run for number 3000 (something that only he and Wade Boggs have ever done). He was voted onto the AL roster despite his less-than-stellar .270 average, his meager three home runs, and his paltry 24 RBI. But, no matter. He’s Derek Jeter, and that alone qualifies him for the All-Star team. He is, and always will be, a star. After all, one of my own baseball gods, Cal Ripken, made plenty of All-Star teams during years when he was not performing at his best. It is the nature of the fan vote. Often name recognition is enough to get one elected, even when one is flirting with the Mendoza line.

However, Mr. Jeter, citing the mental and physical toll of his quest for three thousand hits, declined to play in the game. He even declined to show up in Arizona for the festivities. Wow. I guess, when you reach a certain age, and you’re coming off of a calf injury, and you just went through the struggle to reach a milestone in your sport under the watchful eye of the voracious New York media, you might feel a bit spent. Sure, take the game off. But, come on, at least show up for the introductions. The people love you. Give them some love back. Very disappointing, team captain, very disappointing.

Yet, there is more. Many players, as I mentioned, could not or did not play. I believe there were roughly sixteen. Of those sixteen who bowed out of the game, four followed D. Jeter’s lead and neglected to show up for the game at all. Of those five (Jeter included), four were members of the New York Yankees. Is that a mere coincidence? Or is it indicative of an organizational sense of superiority? Was it an indication of personal integrity that the dugout was full of players who were not going to play but still appeared (it is an honor to be selected, isn’t it?), but that eighty percent of the no shows held roster spots on perhaps the most arrogant organization, not just in sports, but, perhaps, all the world?

Again, I have no love for the Yankees…and I probably have less now than I did yesterday morning. But, to be fair, I am probably looking for reasons to hate them. I suspect one day, when my perfect nightmare comes to pass, that the Yankees will merge with the New England Patriots to form the most loathsome, despicable, arrogant franchise in the entire universe. Hell, they might even ask Man U to join them. But, for now, I can despise them separately, and continue to take every small piece of mildly negative news about them and turn it into a significant indication of how awful they are, not just as a franchise, but as people. Okay, maybe I have crossed a line, there. Strike that last bit. Except for…no, no, just forget it.

If I may get back to my main point here, so I can conclude this rambling screed: would the game last night have been better if Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez were sitting in the dug out? No. But, does the lack of appearance by multiple members of the team with the largest fan base in the entire nation indicate yet another disconnect between players and fans, between baseball and the sad sacks like me who love the game? Yes, it does. Yes, indeed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cashed Checks and Imperfect Balances

Should we talk about the weather?

Should we talk about the government?

--REM, “Pop Song 89”

The sweltering of the plains has begun in earnest for the summer. Saturday was steamy hot--which did not preclude us from several beverages out on some friends’ deck; yesterday was slightly more brutal (except we are not sure just how brutal, since, according to the paper this morning, an equipment malfunction made it impossible to read the temperature and humidity…they couldn’t run to the nearest bank to read the sign out front?)—which did not preclude us from mowing the lawn and doing a bit of yard work in the AM; today portends to be more of the same. I planned on a fishing excursion to a nearby lake this morning, but the forecast, along with the fact that I stayed up late watching the rebroadcast of the US Women’s World Cup rousing victory over Brazil, convinced me to stay in this morning. I plan on taking the fishing trip tomorrow. The weather will most likely remain, but I will have had a bit more sleep.

In other news, I have been thinking lately about the current difficulties that we are in as a nation, specifically, that slippery eel that is the economy, which is sluggish to say the least. Here in Nebraska, we have been pretty lucky compared to many other places, but things are still far from perfect. The mayor proposed last week a hike in property taxes and wheel taxes, in order to raise revenue for roadwork and other operating costs. That still apparently will not save the jobs of some city workers.

I don’t mind paying a bit more to keep things running smoothly, to have parks and street lights, paved roads and a fire department. It is worth the extra fifty bucks a year (or so) it will cost us to maintain those services that I find important for my quality of life. And that money is collected and used by the city that I live in. Every day I can see my taxes being necessary when there is a pot-holed road, a broken water main, a darkened street lamp, or an overgrown park field.

On the federal level, however, things are a bit more complicated. I don’t see the money I send to Washington being directly spent…except on things like war, war, and war. Oh, right, we did give all those banks and car companies all that money…and we gave all those folks cash for their push-pull-drag-or-drive clunkers, so I know that money was well spent. But, it appears that the Feds are in a tougher spot than my town is. The deficit rises; revenues are stagnant. Current natural disasters will cost billions; expensive military actions are still being waged on multiple fronts. The promised jobs created by the wealthy are not materializing; some corporations are not paying any taxes. And Congress and the president can’t seem to see eye to eye on any solution.

And here is where our wonderfully balanced form of government is perhaps making things worse when it should be making things better. For, while the Senate has a Democrat majority, which (one would think) would cooperate with a president from its own party, the House is GOP-controlled. And, do you think that maybe the House majority might feel that they have an interest in keeping the economy in the tank until 2012? Wouldn't that be better for their party?

Am I a conspiracy theorist? No. Do I understand politics? Yes, I do. In that respect—the “I understand the gamesmanship of the political arena” respect—I completely understand why the House might be doing what I think it’s doing. But, I don’t like it. But, I am not going to start lobbing “evil Republican” bombs around. I am not going to point some na├»ve finger and say, “Hey, you red state bozos, quit holding this country hostage and fix the problem.” Nope. I am not going to do that. Because I know a few things: I know that the situation we find ourselves in is the end result of many years of (and both parties’) myopia, avarice, and lack of wisdom. I know that, were the situation reversed, the Dems would do the same thing ( not as effectively…probably more like ineffectively). I know that, most likely, even if the two sides come to a compromise, it will be, like most compromises, well, compromised, and any policy they agree upon will sound great in the paper, but will generally be toothless, useless, and maybe even more detrimental than helpful.

That does not mean I am not fired up at yet another example of party politics taking precedence over the common good. But, what do we do? We do what we always do. We pay our taxes, we try to keep calm, we carry on, we pick cucumbers, we keep the lawn trimmed, we open a beverage, we fill up the kiddie pool, and we hope that the weather breaks soon.

So it goes….

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I Hate Boston, But I Love Boston

Monkey and I spent the past weekend visiting our friends from the Long Haul Project in Boston. I was not only looking forward to spending time with our “new” friends but never having been to Boston made me look forward to the impending travel even more. The fact that our excursion would occur over the July 4th weekend made it even more exciting. After all, Boston (and its environs) is the epicenter of the Revolutionary War.

Now, some of you that are close to me, and even those of you who are not particularly close to me, but just happen to be around when I am in a sufficiently grumpy mood, might be a bit confused here, thinking, “Boston? I thought ATR hated Boston.” No. You misunderstand me. Let me clear that up. I do hate Boston…the band. I do not hate Boston, the city.

And, of course, now those of you not familiar with my hatred of Boston are curious to know why I hate said band (again: NOT the city). Well, it’s more than a feeling, I will tell you that. It’s a difficult loathing to describe, or even justify, but there is something about the style that they managed to carefully develop and hew to forever that just doesn’t sit well with me. Their sound is so clean, so clear, so “wah-wah without the wah,” if you will. It just always seemed so produced. And the pitch of the late Brad Delp’s voice was like Cartman’s “brown noise”—it just does bad things to me inside.

However, I stress, once again, that the city of Boston, despite its very, very close ties to the band Boston, is the object of no animosity on my part. Now that we have cleared that up, let’s move on.

There are many things that I expected to see in Boston, the famous Liberty Bell, the Washington Monument, a host of Celtics jerseys. Strangely enough, beside the jerseys, none of that other “patriotic” stuff was there. Our hosts calmly explained to me that those things are located in other cities, I think one of them was Atlanta, I don’t remember, but I still enjoyed some of the patriotic sites that we did see, like a bronze sculpture of ducks (which was being sorely abused by an army of three year-olds) and a veritable host of soldiers in His Majesty’s Dragoons, or something. I was confused; really, I thought we won the war. Apparently, nobody in Boston was told. Does that make Tom Scholz and Brad Delp the founders of a British band? Do they have more in common with The Who and Pink Floyd than .38 Special (WARNING: link plays "music") and Toto? But, I digress.

What I loved about our trip, aside from the company (both the expected and unexpected kind), was that we enjoyed such a range of experiences. We went to some lovely restaurants, where Monkey and I enjoyed plenty of (but not exclusively) seafood. We miss our seafood out here in the middle of the giant North American continent. We sometimes brave a fish dinner, but not often. It just isn’t the same as having it on the coast. For instance, at our first dinner, at a groovy South End place called the Beehive (where I had my recent smooth jazz experience corrected by the trio that played while we ate), I had a scallop dish that was so fresh and tasty that I nearly cried. It was so nice to have that kind of dining experience.

We also enjoyed Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (for free—hooray for Friday!) and an exquisite sculpture garden, the de Cordova, where my highlight was Steven Seigel’s “Big with Rift,” which consists of newspaper and whatever happens to come along and grow on it. I give it no justice in the description, but I told Monkey that if I lived nearby, I would visit that piece everyday.

A visit to nearby Walden Pond was also part of the itinerary. The weather held just long enough for us to make our way around the shore to see the site of Thoreau's cabin, to watch a young man release a pretty big fish, and to overhear snippets of every conversation being had. Water is quite a carrier of sound!

While we did experience a wide range of historical, cultural, and gustatory delights, we did not enjoy any musicals. I believe someone did propose we try to get tickets to West Side Story, which was playing nearby. Lucky for everyone, we decided not to.

On the fourth, we headed to the venerable Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play the Toronto Blue Jays. There were a number of Blue Jay fans there. I think they came south from Canada, although it is possible they are simply part of the Boston population that still thinks they are British subjects. I don’t know what Canada’s status is vis a vis the Crown, but I think they are still more closely aligned than Boston is supposed to be. At any rate, the result of the ball game was favorable to the home crowd (the Red Sox lost—God Save the Queen).

After the game, we had another great dinner near MIT (I think my arctic char raised my IQ five to ten points), and then walked to a nearby bridge to watch the fireworks over the harbor. The evening’s show was great, despite the occasional T train that blocked our view momentarily. It did confuse me, however, when one of the nearby spectators told his son that the fireworks were to signal the Queen that all was still well in her most loyal of colonies. I thought to correct this historical misunderstanding, but the child’s beaming face in the glow of the rosettes and showers of flaming metal through which he waved his Union Jack was so precious, I thought, “Who am I to interfere?”

We walked home along with a mass of people who literally filled the streets. It made me wish we could just get rid of cars altogether, so that everyday bikes and shoes could ride and wander wherever they desired without fear of being run down, backed into, or blasted in the face with exhaust. This is a dream that may never be realized, but, even as it was suggested that this is what the zombie apocalypse might look like, I continued in my reverie undaunted.

And what did this fabulous trip to Boston leave me with? What is my final thought? I have learned that I love Boston, the city, far more than I hate Boston, the band. Rock on!