Category Archives: Modern Living

Muzak for Churches

We were in a church tower, high above a square in Sibiu, Transylvania when the bells began to toll. Loud? You bet — but it was the perfect way to experience them ringing. At close range you don’t just hear the bells, but the sound beneath the sound, the percussive strike of the clapper.

Bells in the Evangelical Cathedral Sibiu Romania

It’s sort of like a well hit nail. In the distance you listen to the pounding, but right in the room there’s the ring of metal on metal.

Forty-five hundred miles away I was standing outside a local church when the bells sounded — or more accurately, when they played. I say played because these bells are a recording that blares out over the neighborhood through speakers.

The taped bells may seem the same from far away, but up close, like many things that are artificial, they are unmistakably phony — almost to the point of being laughable. Who’s idea was this to use a recording of bells instead installing the real thing? In 1962, taped bells must have seemed very modern.

It probably doesn’t matter to most people, and you might think it petty to have such a strong opinion on something so trivial. This is the digital age. Why should we we care how the sound of a bell is created?

After all, bells are heavy and expensive and require maintenance.They are occasionally imperfect and have even been know to crack. Besides, flipping a switch is so much easier. And more often than not, nobody will know the difference.

Breaking Camp

It was always obvious that people were living in the small patch of trees at Broadway and Church Street, near the Port of Albany. Driving past in the morning, you could make out tents and tarps and sometimes a bit of smoke from a cooking fire. Now and then you’d see clothes stung up to dry.

Not anymore.

This week, somebody — presumably the city — came in and cleared out the area. They didn’t do such a good job of cleaning up. If you walk through the site you can see bits and scraps of what was left behind by the people who lived there.

It reminded me a bit of the scene in “Ironweed” when a gang of thugs descend on a hobo camp to roust the squatters. No, people should not be living in the woods at the edge of town, but it made me sad that their little refuge was destroyed.

Think about what it would be like to live that way — and be thankful you know where you will spend the night.

Bedding

Lost Hat

Campsite

Fire Pit

Flickr slideshow.

Meat Pad!

I’m officially a recycling fiend.

Since our residential waste collection contractor (garbage man) started offering single stream recycling, all the stuff now goes into one bin. This works; separating the trash was just too complicated for my feeble brain to handle.

Now everything’s diferent.

In our household it’s well known that I’m watching what people do with their garbage and picking through the kitchen wastebasket for recyclables. “Hey, that doesn’t go in there!” How annoying!

But I am somewhat flummoxed by meat pads.

Meat pads are those revolting absorbent liners that sit under your meat, soaking up blood. I am not making that name up, for if you Google “meat pads” you can learn more than you ever wanted to know.

These things — which are not recyclable — always struck me as being like sanitary napkins for meat.

Here’s the odd thing: I’m now finding the meat pads glued to the trays. You want to recycle the tray, but the meat pad is stuck to it, so you have to grab the whole soggy mess and give it a good tug.

Last night one slipped from my hands and the dog ran off with it. To a dog, that’s like finding a pork chop on the floor. As usual, your trash may be someone else’s treasure.

Mapless in Connecticut

Here’s a question: are GPS units killing printed maps?

Saturday morning I joined a parade of cars and trucks shunted off I-91 South near Springfield, MA. A terrible accident hours earlier shut down the highway.

There were no detour signs, no information about why the road was closed, and no clue about where to get back on the highway. I felt a powerful urge to have a map in my hand just in case an alternate route was needed.

The first gas station along the way had nothing. “I’ve got a map of Longmeadow,” offered the clerk. No thanks.

Arriving in Naugatuck (where Naugahyde was first manufactured) I went searching for a map to help plot my trip home. Four different stores — three of them convenience store/gas stations — didn’t have a single map for sale.

When I asked if they had maps, they looked at me like I was asking for directions to the Nauga farm.

GPS receivers are great for navigating, but make lousy maps. Sure, they tell you which way to turn and all have lots of whistles and bells — but it makes you blind to the big picture. It doesn’t show where you’re going, just how to get there.

An actual map allows you perspective on your location and how it relates to other places. Looking at a map and figuring out your own route is an important skill — and like a lot of technology, the GPS might be making us dumber.

Besides, I don’t want directions, I want to look at a map and make my own bad decisions.

Harry Rag

I haven’t smoked a cigarette in nearly 20 years, but it’s easy to remember why I liked them.

If you were never a smoker it may be hard to understand how good a cigarette could be at times. Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, after a meal, while drinking — you’ve heard all that crap before. You’ve heard it before because it’s true.

At the end of the smoking years, my poison of choice were hand-rolled cigarettes filled with Drum tobacco. Every one required a little work and time, which seemed to make them more special than the mass-produced factory smokes. I enjoyed every one.

These days smokers are treated like dirt. Just drive through downtown Albany and look at the state workers huddled outside. They look like vagrants, furtively having a smoke under the scaffolding on State Street. The only thing missing are old oil drums to use as burn barrels for keeping them warm, like in Ironweed. So sad.

But just a few steps down, in my building, is one of the few places your can actually light up indoors, a tobacco shop called Smoker’s Paradise. And it really is a smoker’s paradise. The walls are lined with all sorts of cigarettes and loose tobacco, as well as a variety of exotic devices and paraphernalia for specialists. It’s a shabby little place, but nevertheless, a spot where one can still stop and take a deep breath — of smoke.

Now, about the title of this post. It’s borrowed from The Kinks, and what is probably the best song about smoking ever.

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Hoboween

If you haven’t gotten your Halloween costumes squared away, you’d better get moving.

Your author, October 2009. Care for a cookie, dearie?I thought about dressing up as a nun, but my wife reminded me that it would make two years in a row I’d appeared as a woman. She has a point. There should probably be a statute of limitations on how often you can dress in drag before it’s considered a habit. Pun intended.

On the other hand, I could just go as a hobo.

Years ago dressing as a hobo for Halloween was HUGE. It required zero preparation or planning, cost nothing, and was incredibly easy. You’d get some old, ill-fitting clothes from your father’s closet, smear soot on your face, put on a hat, and you were a hobo. Naturally, you’d carry a bindle, the traditional hobo bag tied to a stick.

The great thing about dressing as a hobo is that everybody knew you were a hobo. If people have to ask what you’re supposed to be you have a problem. Halloween is not a time for subtlety — and like parody, if you have to explain the costume, you’re being too obscure.

But maybe the days of the hobo are over, replaced now in the popular consciousness by something else people understand: the homeless. Same thing, you say? Not really.

There was never anything tragic or sad about being a hobo. No consideration of a past shattered by substance abuse or mental illness, no discussion of a life wasted. The hobo was a venturer, making his way on the rails, tumbling along from place to place, the king of the road.

Thankfully, trick or treat is still big in my neighborhood. I predict that this year vampires and zombies will be very, very big, and we will have the usual smattering of princesses, ghosts, and superheroes. However, I’ll be ready with something in addition to candy for the hoboes who come to the door, maybe a can of soup or pair of warm socks. Their parents should get a kick out of that while scouring the goody bags for suspicious candy.

The Amish and Me

It was the greatest idea ever: the Amish spot.

I used to do the advertising for a TV station, and one day, like a bolt out the blue, came an inspired idea for a commercial for our mobile web service. It went like this:

An Amish man is fixing a fence when two children run up.

“Brother Jakob! Please tell us what the weather will be tomorrow.”

He scratches his beard thoughtfully and looks off to the horizon.

“Rainy in the morning, children… but we shall be blessed with a very fine afternoon.”

The kids run off into the field. One says to the other, “Sarah, how does Jakob always know the weather.”

She looks up to the sky. “It is a gift Amos. Truly a gift.”

Meanwhile, Jakob glances around furtively. Once he sees he’s alone, he pulls an iPhone from his pocket, pushes a button and Bob Kovachick’s forecast appears on the screen. Hilarious, right?

My boss liked it, but wondered if it might be offensive to the Amish. “The Amish? Ha! It’s not like they’ll see it on TV, is it?”

Anyway, I left my job before getting the spot done.

It all came back to me a couple of weeks ago I was driving in Montgomery County and found myself in a another world. There were children walking barefoot down the road, men passing by on carriages, women hanging laundry…. I was in the middle of an Amish community.

And I felt guilty.

It bothered me that I was so ready — eager, even — to exploit these folks to peddle my wares. It just felt so wrong; call it a sudden attack on conscience. I would never have dreamed of using a racial joke to sell something — so why was it OK to make fun of these people?

I drove slowly away, humbled, chastened even. They’ll never know it, but they taught me a lesson.

Off the Grid

How much trouble do you have pulling the plug?

I spent the long weekend on Wolfe Island, Ontario, a place better known for cows, shoreline cottages, and wind turbines than lightning fast Internet. Where we were staying, they didn’t even have a phone, so from the time we left Friday evening through Monday night when we returned home there was no internet. No email, no blog comments, no Facebook, no Twitter.

I looked across the water in the evening to the lights of Kingston, a city with free wi-fi on every corner and didn’t care. There was no shaking, moaning, or sweating. Unlike caffeine withdrawal, there was no nausea or vomiting.

There were, unfortunately, lots of cell phones. For my money, mobile phones are the most disruptive devices on the face of the earth –in fact I’d rather sit next to someone blowing on a vuvuzela than a person talking on the phone. That’s really saying something.

At one point over the weekend, someone needed to talk to a person sunbathing out on the rocks. “Does she have her cell phone?” We could see her from where we stood. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d just have to walk over there and speak to them — or better yet, leave them alone with their moment of peace.

Do yourself a favor this Summer and unplug, even for a few days at a time. It’s not as painful as you think. Who knows? It might suit you. For example, I even managed to avoid the free wi-fi at the Thruway rest stops all the way home. I did stop to use the bathroom, but no Internet.

Dirt Bags at the Grocery Store

Have you noticed the awful looks you get from the reusable bag fanatics at the supermarket? Put your groceries in plastic and they act like you just backed over a baby seal in a Hummer. These people are not amused.

Eco-snobbery aside, I’ve actually been thinking of switching to reusable bags. There’s no denying that plastic bags are horribly wasteful, and even if you repurpose some of them for things like handling dog poop, many of them get tossed away just minutes after you receive them at the store.

Now I’m not so sure.

In something that sounds like a bad local TV sweeps story, a new study has found that these reusable bags are often festering nests of harmful bacteria. Here’s an excerpt:

“Reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. In interviews it was found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 12% of the bags and a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens. When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours the number of bacteria increased 10-fold indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.”

Yuck. All this comes at a time when California is trying to pass a law banning plastic grocery bags. Not to sound like a nut, but widespread us of reusable bags could have the potential to make a minor public health problem into a big one.

So what should you do to protect yourself? Wash the stupid things now and then, OK? If not for yourself, think about those poor kids at Price Chopper who have to put their hands into your filthy bags while packing groceries. You want them to get sick, too?

Meanwhile, steal yourself to the icy glare of the sanctimonious shoppers and their smarter than thou bag bias. You may not be green, but at least you’re clean.