Saturday, March 27, 2010

Empire State of One Mind

Kids and I are back in my old hometown for the weekend, visiting with my father and his wife.

Whenever I get down out of the Vermont hills, I am always gobsmacked at how different my adopted Vermont home is from this world, which I think of as "the Rest of America" or "ROA". So many retail establishments! So many cars, suburbs, ethnic groups, big highways etc. Also, so much history, most of it industrial, lots of it cultural.

My but those New Yorkers of yesteryear were vigorous and earnest! Think Roosevelt, think Rockefeller and all their ilk. Their legacy is much on view all around this part of the world.

We went to the New York State Museum this morning which currently has an exhibit on Woman's Suffrage (the home base of the movement in the U.S. was Seneca Falls in western New York) and also a collection of photos from Eastman House. (George Eastman was a Rochester boy). Of course Schenectady of a hundred years ago was an industrial behemoth, home to the mammoth General Electric works and American Locomotive. GE, or big bits of it, remain here. The locomotive factory is a giant, brick husk sitting silently on many brown acres above the Mohawk.

They thought big in New York, at least once upon a time. You can see it still here in these upstate cities and towns. The managerial class had their mansions and those are still here. Although many of them have been converted into funeral homes or chopped up into apartments or suffered worse fates, most seem to have survived as family homes. Looking at them today as we drove from downtown Albany to downtown Schenectady on a road laid out perfectly straight during the 18th Century, it occurred to me again Vermont is not and never has been a place friendly to grand ambition. I think an honest state motto for us would be, "it's good enough!" The Vermont soul does not want to spend; it wants to get by with what it has had. It wants to make due. This mentality is part of what has preserved the place, to the extent it has been preserved.

But where would be without that New York spirit? (Which now seems to have blown over to California, or father into the Pacific). I have to say, I admire it and at least some of what it left behind.

Of course, the current reality of the non-Mansion class here is, frankly, depressing. The solid old houses peter out quickly as one departs the old downtowns. Along that straight road between Albany and Schenectady lie all the seedy stores and quasi-slum housing that characterizes the exurbia of the East Coast ROA.

In a few blocks, as we headed up out of Albany, we were riding past tatoo parlors, tax preparation franchises (why so many these days?) car dealers, and cockroachy-looking shops. (My favorite was "Sham Candy and Tobacco." Presumably the real candy and tobacco is available in better neighborhoods). Close to downtown Schenectady were a couple of motels known even in my high school days as dens of iniquity of the prostitutional variety. One was advertising, "special weekday rates", which I assume meant partial day rates. This dreary spectacle goes on for the full 15 miles that separates the two cities.

At the end of our road today, however, was a bright spot, the very oldest part of Old Schenectady, which is old by North American standards. It is the section of town known as "the Stockade," and it was first settled in 1661 by Dutch merchants. My Dad lived down here during my high school years, shortly after the Dutch were routed by the local Indians, and he and I spent many happy hours around this part of town.

Today, I took the kids to see the old house where he had his apartment and also made them march around a couple of blocks. They protested but I persisted. When I stopped to take pictures of a church, St. George's Episcopal, that I had always admired the priest saw me and invited us in. He was an Englishman, and I asked him if he had been brought over to serve here and he joked (I think), "Yes, as a penance".

The church was as beautiful inside as out. It always struck me as a bit of England in New York and course, that's what it is. When they built it in 1735 and then again in 1762, it was still English territory. Since it served as a barracks in the Revolutionary War, it's American credentials are beyond question, but since we're all friends again and we can all admire its Englishness.

If I were being honest, or at least thorough, about the local scenery I would have pictures for you of the Sham Candy store and the Executive Motor Inn. I actually thought of taking pictures, but I was worried about firing the suspicions of clerk/owners with guns under their cash registers. Also, it is the church, that I want to remember and the thing that you can't see along every main drag in the country, so here ya go.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Brush With Greatness 2

I wrote a few months ago about the handful of personal encounters I have had with famous people. I realized shortly thereafter that I had left one out! I made a mental note to come back and correct the record, so here we are. The kind of embarrassing thing is that I am not exactly sure who the famous person was. How can that be, you ask?

He was (is) part of the band Phish. I did not know a lot about Phish then, or now. I know it wasn't Trey Anastasio. His name and look are sort of hard to forget. The other guys are very regular looking in my estimation. (I do have their new album, Joy, on iTunes BTW, but its my first foray into their music). I have looked at a few pictures of the guys and I think it might have been Page McConnell. Sorry, Phish fans. Anyway, here's how it went.

It was the late '90s and I was working in a small Burlington, Vermont law firm. Late in the afternoon one day I heard from one of the partners that someone from Phish was coming into to talk with the firm's real estate expert. I am pretty sure that I was told that it was Trey, but I am sure that it wasn't, as noted. I kept my eyes on the parking lot for an expensive car.

Eventually, after stalking around the ground floor near the entrance, I saw that the Phish Man had arrived. No fancy car. He had walked up the hill from downtown in his sandals. I came down from my office for what I intended to be a bit of low key gawking. When I got to the waiting room He was waiting, just like a regular person! He was perusing a copy of Life magazine, which, as I recall, had been recently reconstituted around that time.

The cover story was about a pair of Siamese, ooops, I mean "conjoined" twins who had not been subject previously to public exposure. They were girls of about 10 at the time and Life had given them a camera of their own to document their lives. The resulting pictures weren't that great, but they were still pretty startling. The remarkable thing about them was that they were joined from the neck down, giving them the appearance of a creature with two heads.

I always thought of those girls in the years to come when I saw this creature on a TV show my kids favored as preschoolers:

The twins were basically like this, except that they were human and white and not a cartoon. (I used to wonder what they and their family thought of this particular character, and if they ever felt riled by this and other depictions of the two-headed as dim, but that's another blog post....)

Anyway, the Phish Man was smiley and friendly to the little crowd of us who had come to look at him in our waiting room. Together, we all looked at the magazine. We agreed that the twins were an amazing sight. He said, "God, it's hard enough to share an apartment with someone!" We all laughed. We all liked him, whoever he was. We wished that Phish did not have a phalanx of New York City lawyers to do all their big work.

OK. That's all I got. Well, one time I did have to leave a message for Lynda Barry, but that sounds a little desparate, doesn't it?

Hoping to hear more celebrity stories from any commenter willing to share.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring; Ditcher and Ditchee

A Saturday in early spring means no time here on the Vermont/Quebec border for a proper post. The snow has disappeared and revealed all the dirt and sticks and dog doo and everything else that looked a lot better covered with three feet of snow. I am heading out with a rake and a shovel so just stopping by to wave the flag.

But before I forget...

Does Middle School Ever End?

I went to a Vermont Bar meeting over the last couple of days, something I haven't done in a couple of years since I no longer have an employer-provided budget for continuing legal education. (They scared up a subsidy for this one, though I was partly on my own dime).

As a result, I saw a bunch of people (i.e., lawyers) that I hadn't seen in a long time. One, I will call her "Lawyer 1" for reasons that will become apparent, sat in the office next to mine at the big firm where we both worked for a couple of years. Working there was, for both of us, like living with a spear in your back. We left around the same time for something less pointy and I hadn't seen her since. Lawyer 1 has a certain charisma and obvious charm that made it more or less certain she would find something good, which she seemed to have done. I was excited to see her and to catch up with her after our last encounter which included bemoaning the agonies of big firm law. I said we should have lunch and she seemed enthusiastic and agreed.

So anyway, I was waiting outside the banquet room for her (OK, sort of like stalking) when I spied another lawyer I hadn't seen in years. We had worked opposite each other during my stint as a prosecutor (she was a defense attorney). We'll call her Lawyer 2, although lawyer 202 might also be appropriate given her professional circumstances. I had heard some whispering about some big personal disaster that had overtaken her, something to do with a love affair gone bad. I knew she had left the office where I had known her under some kind of cloud. Anyway, I said hello to her and asked how she was. Still unemployed she said. Getting interviews but no call backs. Taking bar exams in other state. Ouch. I didn't probe. Then Lawyer 1passed by and I said, "Bye, gotta go."

We got to the banquet room, Lawyer 1 right behind me. I sat down and saw Lawyer 1 had jagged to another table. I.e., I had been ditched.

I saw Lawyer 2 wander in, alone. She sat at a table with a buffer seat on either side of her (i.e., still alone). Well, I thought I have been both the ditcher and the ditchee here. Live by the ethos of sixth grade and die by it.

A note on today's banner: also not the view from my house but isn't that a cool old picture?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sometimes You Win...

I went antique shopping yesterday, again. At one point I was one of three customers in a big shop along a highway. The other two were grey-haired women out on their own. Reader, it scared me.

Is this my future? Desiccated and wandering among the detritus of past generations, killing time with other non-entities? And isn't this grubbing through the goods of the dead sort of horrifying?

This shopping trip was already a guilty one because I had a day off and I was supposed to be working on a project, the writing project, and rather than being alone with my computer I had fled. I caught sight of myself in an antique mirror and realized I looked a fright too - lumpen and dull. So sad. I left without buying anything.

I felt a little better as soon as I drove away. I wasn't ready to go do any work but I got thinking that it might at least be less depressing to shop at TJ Maxx. There was, however, a new Goodwill Shop on the road between the antique store and TJ Maxx.

Now, what was that quibble I'd had about sifting through the goods of the dead? Oh, what I meant, apparently, was that I didn't want to deal with the retail goods of the dead; those things that have been placed in glass cases to be tended by eager sales people. My habitat is the charity shops, where the goods of the dead and Peace Corps volunteers and yo yo dieters etc. are displayed under fluorescent lights and priced for the unemployable, single mothers and recent immigrants. Another moment of self discovery along Route 7.

My day brightened considerably at Goodwill.

Here's what I got: Six new-condition Williams Sonoma linen napkins (total .99 cents); a pair of Waverly toile linen napkins, apparently unused (also .99 cents); a tea towel printed with vintage ad for Guinness. Someone had framed it (yes, a tea towel under glass) so it was also new - $2.99. (I had them throw out the broken frame when I got to the cash register). I got a 1971 (or so) Smith Corona Made in the USA Secretarial 250 electric typewriter for five bucks. (Kids went mad for it when I got it home. Shackleton the non writer/reader started pounding out notes: e.g., "Mom, by me presents. Understudy, you suck" - until he discovered that holding down the space bar created a sound like a distant machine gun).

Speaking of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez

We weren't but we are now...

I got a BIG framed poster ($5) for an Velazquez Exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1990. The frame is a classic (ugly) 1990 metallic gold number, but it was obviously done professionally and the picture has launched me into a day of Velazquez appreciation. That's it up there at the top of this post (the image on my poster). It's the Infanta Margarita in 1653 - the same little girl who is featured some years later in Velazquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. I put it in my office today and looked at it half the day. I am now I am just itching to get to the Prado.

So, life and art are affirmed and fires of enthusiasm stoked at under $20. If any of you few readers get up to the Last House one of these days I promise to whip out those linen napkins and give you a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and you can dab the crumbs and tea off your lips very daintily with them. I promise to wash them first.

Also Good

I have XM satellite radio in my car, thanks to my Dad who gave me the radio and a subscription about a year ago. We are all totally addicted to it now. We listen to BBC Radio 1 and '60s music and '70s music and all this fabulous stuff with no commercials! One channel plays audio books and you never know what you'll find there. Today, while I was out at lunchtime, I heard about 10 minutes of Wuthering Heights. It was read by some actress (some good actress) and hearing it out loud made me realize just how great the writing is - practically Shakespeare in the bit I heard (Cathy and Heathcliff arguing with Edgar). Last week, I heard a story by Saki, (H.H. Munro). I have never really read anything by him and had only the vaguest notion of what he was all about. The story was funny and a little silly (that's the point with him), but the man wrote like an angel. Listening to this kind of thing reminds me how beautiful English is or can be - plain beautiful just to hear.

Finally, on the way home tonight, I hit a particularly rich vein of '70s hits. Abba singing Chiquitita; Boz Scaggs and the Lido Shuffle. Oh, and Barry White, "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Baby." Barry White, where are you now? A nation lifts its lonely ears to you.

On that note, Bon Weekend.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Shackleton Speaks IV

Setting: The town library, after school this week. I go to extract Shackleton from a computer where he is playing a game on-line. I watch for a moment. I like the graphics - just stick figures wandering around an outdoor cafe. Then I see that the player (i.e. Shackleton) is focusing on them as through a rifle scope. The object, apparently, is to shoot the figures in their round dot heads, which then become red blots, if the shot is successful. The game, I see, is called "Assassin."

Me: Oh my God! That is terrible!

Shackleton: What?

Me: "Assassin?!" Shooting people in head?

Shackleton: Well, you can't shoot them anyplace else. I've tried. Like, if you shoot them in the middle you would think that would cut them in half, but it doesn't.

Me: That's awful. I don't want you playing that game. Play something nice, like Club Penguin.

Shackleton: Club Penguin is boring. You can't shoot the heads off the penguins.

Me: Yes, that's part of its charm.

Shackleton: Oh man!

. . .
(For the record, Shack was laughing during all this.)

In other news, I had a lovely mid-day hike in the woods on Thursday with my new phone/camera in my pocket - not the iPhone I coveted and had briefly last month but a much inferior thing from Verizon. But that is water over the dam. You may be surprised (NOT!) to learn that I took a few pictures on this walk, including today's banner.

It wasn't easy. The sun was so bright I couldn't really see the screen and I still don't know how to work the thing. I just pointed and took a snap of faith. I almost skipped that walk because I had a bunch of other things to do, but it was the high point of a dull week. So, here are just a couple more pictures of my favorite woods.