Monday, November 20, 2006

Mr. Grumpy's Thanksgiving

I've been to Trader Joe's, Stop & Shop and the Haymarket. We have that hippy-dippy free-range turkey to pick up Tuesday and pies and bread to bake. It reminds me of a story.

About 40 years ago, in Plainfield, New Jersey, two older family friends were anticipating a rough Thanksgiving. Evelyn and Rollins Justice (everyone called him "Justice," which seemed to fit such a kind and thoughtful man) had a tough year and a tougher guest.

They ended up fearing a Thanksgiving under the tyranny of his father. Think Abe Simpson and you are in the area. The old man had retired from the railroad in his 40s, sponged off one child and then moved in with his son and daughter-in-law in Plainfield. He was entitled, demanding and often nasty. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, from morning biscuits to his rocking chair placement. Justice was old school country from the western mountains of North Carolina. He would never toss the old guy or order him to behave.

Evelyn had volunteer work with the veterans' hospital, she had visited remote sick grandkids, money was tight and Justice had to work. They simply could not prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Evelyn was a fabulous cook with the Southern pride of my-hand-to-your-mouth hospitality. She was sad not to be able to cook and she and Justice dreaded the response from the old man.

They didn't discuss it with him. Rather when Justice got home, they got into their black Rambler and headed out to find someplace that was open and they could afford. The only place seemed to be the drive-in Steer Inn on Route 22.

Evelyn steeled herself as Justice went in and returned to the car with burgers, fries and drinks. Amazingly, the old man had not said a word, much less started a tirade about the first Thanksgiving of his life without a feast presented to him.

Finally, as Evelyn and Justice looked out the windshield and started on their burgers, the old man spoke. He said only, "Hain't got no table."

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Outrunning the Sun

By an odd twist, we just discovered that the former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems works for Microsoft now. After 13 years there, he describes his new spot in his last Sun blog post.

His last day was July 28th and "I'm going to be working for MicroSoft at a new group aimed at multi-threading tools and compilers, possibly moving to low-end HPC." That would be high-performance computing.

The Sun post has a link to his personal blog.

In a small bit of conincidence, I have been contracting for a company in Boston that Microsoft recently acquired. Our mail system just began forwarding to Microsoft addresses as well. So, that Michael Ball got my email as well as his own. When I looked him up, I see that he is the same fellow I had mentioned and with whom I had brief email correspondence. That is not a belive-it-or-not moment, but with an eyebrow raise.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Wall Walking in JP

A hidden treat, complete with bugs and poison ivy, awaits Boston cognoscenti. Unless you're on foot and hawk-eyed, you'd likely miss the overly discreet sign for Allandale Woods where Centre Street joins the VFW Parkway.

This approach seems part of the Department of Conservation and Recreation's stealth parks program. Make the signs small enough in muted enough colors and who knows, maybe no one will mess with your spaces. Public spaces, we don't have no public spaces. We don't need no stinkin' public spaces.

The DCR does not seem to list this on its recreational opportunities. However, you can use the pulldown list on the Boston parks site for basic info -- but no map. The city notes:
Composed primarily of oaks, maples, and pines, Allandale Woods is one of the few relatively pristine secondary growth oak-hickory forests in the city of Boston. Trails, laid out by the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1992, run throughout the site leading to various areas of interest including three ponds, several streams, and a marsh.
If you head South, past the Sophia Snow units and Larry Palmer's Mobil gas, turn sharp right up the steep hill just past the DCR sign. It is new, but already a third overgrown. So be alert.

What you get is entry into an 18th Century woods with an early 20th Century stone wall running a mile or more through the middle. This is the second largest wooded space in Boston, about 90 acres. It is the largest urban wild.

From a few yards away, it doesn't exist. There's the Greek Catholic Church and a long stretch of nothing in particular along the VFW Parkway. If you run on the adjacent sidewalk, as many locals do, you'd see almost uniformly a steep drop to an overgrown chasm that promises hugely marshy Spring slogging. There is one narrow break in the guard rail to a trail, but it is otherwise totally forbidding.

Back in the woods though, only a few feet off the Centre Street sidewalk, the amazing stone wall starts and goes straight up the hill. You can learn more about it than you need to know in a Walter H. Marx article reprinted on the JP Historical Society site.

The short of Allendale Woods is that it is pretty much like it was in the 1700s, when it was part of a nearly 300 acre land grant to the Weld family for military service in the Revolution. It is testament to their tenacity or stupidity that they, then the Williamses, farmed it for two centuries. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to work such hilly, forested, rocky soil.

A little over 100 years ago, Mary Pratt Brandegee ended up with this part of the land. In the 1890s, Boston was on a park-expansion tear. This included buying some of this land and adding bridle paths, which are still evident and useful particularly to bikers.

As part of the deal, Boston agreed to delineate her land with a wall, averaging one and one-half feet in width and two and one-half feet in height. As befitting our efficient city, it got around to the construction about 40 years later.

As Marx puts it, "only a mile in length, easily walked or followed within an hour, but in different seasons it has views just as good as those from Hadrian's Wall...Our local wall has weathered its New England winters well. Here and there the wall's top strip of concrete is gone. But, like Hadrian's Wall it still has some fine straight runs and turns."

He also wonders about the masons' work. How did they get their materials in place and how difficult was it to build up and down steep grades, over streams, and around trees. For all the geographic demands, the wall is amazingly uniform.

Having just walked its length, we offer this detail.

In theory, you could walk on one side or another of the wall for its length. What's the fun in that?

For most of the length, you can be a kid again and stride, sidle or even skip on the wall top. Marx's 1992 article claims little obstruction from overgrowth. In many places, you advance by ducking under, walking over or pushing aside overgrowth.

We found maybe eight places where trees had fallen over the wall, requiring dismount and remount 10 or 30 feet beyond. Likewise, the original wall has a few places where it appears icing and expansion have removed concrete and stone. At least for now, you can manage to walk those.

However the whimsy of the mason seem to rule in a dozen or so places. There are bends around a tree there and there. In another dozen places, the wall breaks for a large tree, also requiring a hop down.

We climbed over quite a lot of poison ivy, but aren't susceptible. In general, long pants and bug spray are wise.

More geometrically challenging are the steep grades. These would be high ranking on Tour de France climbs if they were longer. As it is, we went knees over knuckles and in two places walked the trail beside the wall up the sheerest climbs. The wall wasn't slick; it was just that steep.

While grousing that the article promised of a vista of the Blue Hills, I stopped when that's exactly what appeared. Hot damn.

Amusingly, I envisioned some towering arches over running water. In the photo above, which came from the article, this was a fairy-tale version for small creatures. It was two or three feet, not 30, high.

There lots of birds, wildflowers, forest critters and that musky smell of old growth forest in its lifecycle. That will make you thirsty and curious. Bring water and a camera.

There are multiple trails running perpendicular to the wall as well as beside it. We saw a pair of dog walkers, some tagging evidence (although only a couple of beer bottles), and a mountain biker. No one else was on the wall though.

These Woods are nice place in spots for a picnic or assignation -- wonderful its length for a walk.

By the bye, we didn't take the last 150 feet or so. The wall disappears into several Brookline backyards. The residents have taken command of the wall with overgrowth and barriers to their backyards. (The imperialism of the upper-middle class.)

You want your quiet, your nature and your bit of history? Finding that Woods sign is a good place to start.
Yet More History: I just ran across another site, Heart of the City, that describes this urban wild. It has info, some of which appears on the hidden Woods sign...and more:
Native Americans lived in this area until about 1000 BC. John Winthrop, while he was Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, gave Captain Joseph Weld 285 acres of land in recognition of his service to the colony during the Pequot War of 1637. Part of this land was to become Allandale Woods.

Captain Weld's brother, Reverend Thomas Weld, settled here and used black slave and Native American labor to grow rye, corn, squash, pumpkins, apples, beans, and tobacco. In 1806, Weld sold part of the land to Benjamin Bussey, who established the Arnold Arboretum. He passed another part of the land on to Thomas Williams. Subsequently in 1894, part of the land was sold to Faulkner Hospital and part was sold to the City of Boston to establish a parkway that would connect the Arnold Arboretum to Franklin Park (Heath & Primack. Allandale Woods: A Fragment of the First Families of Boston. 1991).

A springhouse was built here in 1870 to provide water to residents, and the area was soon famous for the healing effects of its water. In 1876 the Allandale Mineral Spring Water Pavilion opened. The spring claimed to be able to cure "dyspepsia, kidney problems, diabetes, gravel, canker, dropsy, catarrh, nervousness, bladder diseases, constipation, eczema, and all skin diseases"

So the rest of JP was busy building breweries with the great water but the Allendale folk had loftier, if less routinely satisfying, ends.
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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Not Meeting Marcia Ball

Towering nine stories above the Pawtucket Canal, we reveled in the Venice of America. We were there also to revel in Marcia Ball's music.

We might have met her, but didn't.

Pretension Note: Numerous other U.S. cities have subsequently claimed Venice of America. They include Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Venice, California. However, with the completion of the Pawtucket Canal, as a detour around the waterfalls, at the close of the 18th Century, Lowell laid claim first. This joined with the Merrimack Canal to run the nearly 30 miles to Charlestown and create the fastest, cheapest way to move raw material and manufactured goods in the region.

As part of a prolonged birthday celebration, my wife got tickets for the July 3rd Marcia Ball concert. She's a sizzling blues singer, who seldom visits New England. She's from Louisiana and the T doesn't have a local stop there. The last time she was at Johnny D's in Somerville, her tickets sold out faster than I could get two.

Now the disclaimer, she and I are likely no relation. Ball is a pretty common last name in England and the United States. As she's from left of the Delta region and my family came into Virginia early, we may well have no common ancestors. We sure don't look anything alike. She's long and lanky. I have a chest and forequarters like a draft horse.

Nevertheless, I like to feel a link to a great blues singer.

We became aware of her through the annual Lowell Folk Festival. We interrupt this rambling rant to urge you to attend the festival. We never leave without discovering someone fabulous that we didn't know before. We always have a fresh CD in hand.

Oh, and if you need any other incentive, be aware that it is free. A whole day of music on multiple sound stages simultaneously is free. Whether you like whiny hillbilly, Cajun, Chicago blues, World, bluegrass, Irish or whatever, they have it. At any moment, something you'll love is playing. And, by the way, it's free.

Marcia has been at the festival numerous times. Also, lately she has been donating proceeds to Katrina victims in her own area. This week, she gave her concert as a fund raiser for the Folk Festival.

The concert was at the Boardinghouse Park, a great outdoor venue for live music. We left from where I work in South Boston and got to the DoubleTree on the canal in time for dinner before the 7:30 event.

For those who don't know Lowell, there is little fancy there. It is an industrial town, one that can deserve the term gritty. It was a key battleground for the American labor movement. Today, it has many earnest lefties, like Dick Howe of the Democratic City Committee and of course, everyone's favorite rabble rouser, Lynne at LeftinLowell.

Its compact little downtown also has a lot of pub-type restaurants, plus a few yuppie, veal-piccata ones and several Portuguese havens. It turns out that Lowell is closed on July 3rd and 4th. I guess folk go to Boston for the Pops, because they weren't there.

Most restaurants were closed. Fortunato's was jammed and the waitron said service would take a long, long time. We ended up at the nearby Bombay Mahal, very good food, accurately spiced to order, and with excellent service, as we were at one of two occupied tables. The owner said he had been there for 16 years and had gotten used to the town being deserted on the Fourth of July. He didn't know where people went, but it wasn't to restaurants and wasn't to downtown.

Anyway, we got served in time to walk the three blocks to the park and settle in before she started. The area was pretty full, but for some reason, there were a dozen or so empty places on the grass up front outside of the reserved for big spenders (the $50 tickets instead of $20 ones) area. We put it down 25 feet from the stage.

It was good to be close. She travels with a guitarist, bass guitarist, sax player and drummer. She brutalizes and persecutes her electric piano to great effect. So, it was not the type of concert that relies on hugely amplified speakers to cover for the meager talents of the band. Closer is better with Marcia Ball.

As always, she got people screaming, dancing and shaking. That's a bit deceptive in that she is not a huge stage presence like some second and third-rate musicians. I think of seeing the Four Seasons, Frank Sinatra and Wayne Newton. None of them was ever all that good musically or vocally, but they gave a great show, they dominated the room and you left feeling you have really been entertained.

Marcia brings it right to your ears. She pounds the keyboard like Jerry Lee Lewis (but a better player) and she delivers passion and humor with vitality.

She did a double set and covered about everything I love from her CDs. Up top, she used her classic Redbeans, she tore into Soulful Dress, and just when I thought she'd leave off my beloved Let Me Play With Your Poodle, she ended her second set with it.

We went back to the hotel, towering nine stories above the canal, rocking and happy.

The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel before heading back to the visiting relatives we had abandoned in our Boston house. Checking out, we told the desk clerk who was curious why we were there for one day from Boston that we had come up for that concert.

She asked if we had seen her, that the band was on the same, small floor of the hotel. Not only had we not seen her, they must have come in either very late (unlikely in Lowell) or very quietly. We weren't roused.

Our folk were expecting us and there was no time to hang around in hopes of running into an almost certainly non-relative to heap praise upon her.

So, we heard Marcia Ball again and sat at her feet. We'll have to make sure we say, "Hey," the next opportunity.

On the way out, my wife called to the clerk, "Tell her that her cousin said, 'Hello.'"

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Boston Foxes

Somebody took my foxes...and my pheasants.

Coming home up the back side, the Centre Street side of the Arnold Arboretum today, I missed them yet again. I used to see both and other wildlife dashing, cavorting and even canoodling across and beside the road. They'd pass from or to the urban wild on the other side, a Forest Hills Station/arboretum sandwich. What was visible, sudden and at home seemed out of place in a big city and was most welcome.

Often I'd bike that route. That gave me the advantage of relative silence and apparent slow movement. A red fox would notice me but not panic. Slick helmet and all, I might be another funny animal with round feet.

I had seen my feathered and furry chums for over a decade when the city and state put a very sensible, virtually unused gravel pedestrian way from the T to the trees. While this looks reasonable on a map, they were really clearing out the urban wild and destroying the animal and bird habitat. It appears that the underlying reasoning was a response to neighbors' complaints that other urban wildlife -- junkies and hookers -- liked to cavort in this space as well.

Fie on the victimless crime committers!

Fact is, virtually everyone who takes the Orange Line or a bus to FH, headed for the arboretum, walks up the sidewalk to the nearest Arboretum/Route 203 gate. That's where the roses, lilacs and frog ponds are.

My family has a tie to the urban wild that disappeared in 2001. We had walked the Emerald Necklace under the stiff-spined leadership of Boston Park Ranger Jim Gorman. We had a youth and toddler for the long trek.

Shortly after, we saw that he would lead a tour of urban wilds in southern Boston (JP area). We went with him and saw the several, including the Centre Street area.

Gorman was Dudley Do-Right in bloom. He looked as though he was born to the pointed ranger hat and he certainly must have been an Eagle Scout. I suppose that one never stops being one any more than one is an ex-Marine.

He picked up the Bud cans and handed them to our boys for their trash bags. Meanwhile, he showed up the possums, squirrel nests, racing fox, and astonishing variety of birds. The ranger loved his wilds.

Now, the Centre Street wild is an antiseptic, well-mowed, junky-free blah. Miles South, I can still see my pheasants running across Unquity Road as I bike back through Milton. My gilded and glistening buddies, the forest in town, are gone.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

This Just in From Ottawa...

As the Russians used to call a neighbor droog po droog (friend of a friend), a chum of the Ottawa cajun-style musician put me in touch. Now I'm waiting for a CD.

David Scrimshaw drew Michael Ball in mid fiddling. He then responded to my post with the Website for Ball and Chain, Jody Benjamin and Michael's group's URL.

In turn, I whinged to him that they seem to make no effort to sell their CDs on the site or link to anyone who does. I tried my usual suspects, like Amazon,, Djanos and so forth. To shut me up, David said he'd relay my request to Michael.

Sure enough, today I got a note from him including:
I hear from a friend of mine, David, here in Ottawa that this guy Michael Ball wants to buy one of our CD's. Well Hallelujah!! There's probably millions of us Michael Balls, well dozens at least, all over this continent. Any way, either contact us and we'll send you one in exchange for a checque for 22.00 or go to and do a search for Ball and Chain and the Wreckers. The album title is "Live at the Bayou". At cdbaby you can use your credit card and you can read the blurb and listen to some samples if you like.
Well, impatient sort that I am, I clicked on over to CD Baby and ordered. The idea of two-way snail mail, check/cheque and so forth is so 20th Century.

I have CDs of the Engligh musical singer, the classical composer and so forth. This will be my first namesake cajun/country.

A review will surely follow.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bow Ball Beau

Up in Ottawa, on Dave Scrimshaw's blog, you can find this sketch of one of us.

This one's a fiddler. Michael drew the bow and Dave drew Michael.

As Dave puts it:
When I play my horn, my mind often wanders all over the place, but when Michael plays you can see that his entire being is absorbed with the music. Even when he's playing bass and plucking slow whole notes.

As for his fiddle playing, I've heard people play fiddle faster than he does, but no one with his sweetness of tone. Every time he plays the Lover's Waltz, my eyes tear up, and I don't even know if the song has any words.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Don't Let Friends Drive IE

Get Firefox!
I keep Internet Explorer hidden on my various boxes, but use the vastly superior Firefox. There are a very small number of sites that are sooooo 20th Century that they require IE.

A new report provides yet more proof that you want to use Firefox. The short of it is that protects much better against spyware.

More specifically, two University of Washington professors had Web crawlers hit 45,000 sites. They then "cataloged the executable files found, and tested malicious sites' effectiveness by exposing unpatched versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox to 'drive-by downloads.' That's the term for the hacker practice of using browser vulnerabilities to install software, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes not."

Because they started with unpatched versions of both browsers, the pair won't just say Firefox is safer. I have no doubts from experiential knowledge. For example, I keep on isolated PC at home that two kids use. They frequently use security patched OS and IE on it. When I run the sphere and Adair checkers on my systems, that box invariably has large numbers of sphere and sometimes malware installs. The two I have that are almost exclusively Firefox machines have one none if I have not used IE and a few if I have used IE.

Regardless, Firefox has many more features (like the indispensable tabbed browsing). If you haven't switched, click up top here

Friday, February 03, 2006

Thai 2 Mike

Thailand's spirit houses were the subjects of a post by one of us, from Bangkok, in his NOODLESFOREVER blog. He writes, in part:
Most Thais believe in a fourth dimension of nonliving souls - or ghosts - existing alongside the living. While many deceased spirits are regarded as being benevolent, Thais, much like westerners, are still pretty spooked by the thought of having to share a kitchen with a long-dead white-haired granny.

To appease the spirt (or spirits) who reside within its walls, every Thai structure -from office tower to teak shack - has a spirit house. The spirit house is a shrine of sorts that generally sits somewhere in front of the building's main entrance or off to the side. While some of these shrines are mere platforms which rest like tiny treeforts between a nearby tree's branches, most are independent structures, usually looking like a miniature temple sitting atop a one-legged table.
He claims to be 25 and his about-me simply reads virginiadelphian.

His writing is staccato, entertaining and varying in length post to post. He's gone to places I have not. So most posts are a snippet of education.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bowery Boy

I don't and won't put money in the paper cup of the mendicant sitting on a milk crate outside a Dunkin' Donuts in Downtown Crossing. He's not noticeably smelly or particularly rude. However, he's a lot of years too late.

In college days, there was a beggar in front of the Prudential Center who often got my attention and change. He had a simple routine, but it was fine theater, excellently timed. Unlike others, he'd show money. Opening his fist, he pushed coins around his palm, looked imploringly and pointed to the adjacent snack shop. "I need just 55 cents to get a ham sandwich there," he'd say. From his look, I am pretty sure his lunch was from a green bottle, but I had been amused and paid up almost every time.

Then in my early 20s, I fulfilled my high-school promise to myself and moved to Manhattan. I took over an apartment of a friend of a friend who needed to sublet it for a year.

East Third Street had its own set of subcultures. I was directly across the street from the Hell's Angels (a different story...later) and a couple of blocks from the main men's shelter on the Bowery.

So if I headed in one direction, single and paired bums aggressively begged me for spare change, a quarter, a dollar, help. I started out giving the most intense of them money, then fewer, then none. It did not take long to put out a force shield.

Then, I began hearing a peculiar question repeatedly. In a laughably small A&P, in a bodega, in a Russian bakery and in the closest liquor store, a clerk would stop suddenly my transaction to ask, "Do you have a brother around here?"

Finally, I saw him. Five mornings, I left the grit of the Lower East Side for my temp job at the Museum of Modern Art. I was a lackey helping bring the Italian Design Show (another different story...also later) to town. Unlike the chrome hogs sputtering and roaring across the block every night, the objects at MOMA were, well, art. From ashtrays to typewriters to coffee mugs, we used objects that were part of the design collection. There was a delicacy to such indulgence in beauty.

This Monday, I was almost to the subway when I looked down at yet another bum on yet another milk crate. We simultaneously stared at each other. From the blond hair to the long jaw to the reddish moustache, we were identical. We were the same age and size and were twins.

This was my illusory brother.

We remarked on it all. He too had been asked about his brother in the neighborhood. At least we had one other difference; our names were nothing alike.

I gave him money that morning and every time I saw him. In exchange, he began to offer tidbits of a childhood in New Jersey, a middle-class family, an engineering degree from Rutgers, no jobs available in the recession, and a pioneering drive, but East instead of to the Plains, to experience raw life.

We saw each other for months, and then never again. I like to assume that he did not die on the street of violence or acute alcoholism. Rather, I saw him returning to his family, tossing the smelly clothes and starting his straight career.

The lyrics to Phil Ochs' "There But For Fortune have had a particular intensity from the first time I saw my twin.