Category Archives: Modern Living

Simcoe Island

The only way you can get to Simcoe Island, Ontario is to take this cable ferry. Except in the winter — then you might drive across the ice if you are brave enough.

There’s a lighthouse at the tip of Simcoe, and fifteen years ago you could sit next to it and look out on the vast horizon of Lake Ontario. Today there are signs everywhere warning you to keep out. How times have changed.

The Lost Art of Calling in Your Children

When I was a boy, the late afternoon air would be split by the sound of someone — a mother, usually — hollering out the name of her child. It was just like in this classic commercial, except in the suburbs:

I haven’t heard that in probably more than ten years, when the woman across the street would stand on the stoop and call out for her son. “Matthew! Matthew!” She had amazing pipes.

Today this has gone the way of sending your kid to the store to buy you a carton of cigarettes. It’s just something that’s not done anymore.

Why is that?

Mobile phones are certainly one of the culprits. Now you just call or text the little buggers to summon them home. It could be that they’re sitting on the couch instead of tooling around the neighborhood — or at least that’s what the media keeps telling us.

Either way, it’s another one of those things swept away by changing times, once so commonplace, now just a memory.

Voices in the Orchard

Sour cherries: one hour after picking, one hour before eating.

At Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, the trees are heavy with cherries and the bushes full of blueberries. If you don’t watch where you’re walking, you’ll step on something good to eat.

We spent a few hours there over the weekend, filling our baskets with fruit and picking vegetables. It’s quiet on the farm, but besides the hum of bees and chirping birds there was an interesting sound: a mix of languages from across the globe.

All around were people speaking in the native tongues of the Far East, India, Eastern Europe, and Russia. They outnumbered those speaking English by two to one. Children raced around between the trees as their parents filled big containers with cherries — and some families found a shady spot to picnic.

One group was harvesting huge bundles of greens in the cucumber patch. I have no idea what they were gathering, but what looked like weeds to me is probably delicious prepared in the right kitchen.

This is something I’ve seen during every visit to Samascott. While I hate to draw conclusions from such flimsy evidence, it seems to say something about our relationship with what we eat.

Do we care less about where our food comes from than people who have roots in other cultures? Judging by the international crowd filling the orchards and fields, I wonder if they know something that we’ve forgotten.

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.


Lost Hat


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.

YouTube Preview Image


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.