The Handyman

I accept the fact that when things around the house need fixing, I am most handy out of the house. I have two left hands.

I can’t draw a straight line even with a ruler. Besides, I run around in circles.

My tools are simple – pen, paper, camera and my noggin.

Unlike my neighbor and college friend, he has every conceivable machine, tool, and gadget in his garage, ready for any task.  And if he doesn’t have the right doodad, he rents it or buys it on Craig’s List and eBay. He collects things I don’t know how to pronounce.

Patience for such procurement isn’t in my d.n.a. I prefer the yellow pages to call a professional fixer.

One morning Charlie was in his driveway pushing a mini Bobcat track loader. He was, rebuilding a stonewall, uprooting old tree stumps, and searching for anything else he could tear down. The manufacturer touts that “the compact machine allows you to go where many machines cannot.”  I’d rather not go there.

While Charlie’s a hands-on kind of guy, I’m hands-off.  I suffer from M.P.  (machine phobia). Though admittedly, the mini Bobcat® looked like a lot of fun. So, I stood behind the control levers and ran it up the hillside.  It felt like driving one of those Dodgem bumper-cars at amusement parks, especially when I crashed it into a tree.

Charlie loves trailers. I’ think that he’s addicted to them. He’s an “alcho-hauler.”He hauls boats and furniture across state lines, yard leaves and tree limbs across town limits. His driving ability and reflex actions are off the charts; he can maneuver his Jeep and added-on wheels as good as any experienced semi-truck driver.

His training as a Navy jet pilot landing on aircraft carriers has given him a unique skill set. He thinks nothing of towing a 45-foot powerboat to Florida “flying” along the highways, turnpikes and through tollbooths.

I don’t know if there’s a correlation between being handy with tools and towing trailers. I know that I’d feel a little dubious attempting such a mission, as I would climbing on a roof to repair shingles, power wash windows, or tile a bathroom, which Charlie recently did. He’s always doing something around the house.

I admire his skills and fearlessness in setting out to do work that he’s never done before. I’m more a house sitter.

My abilities are more visual and cerebral in nature. I’m talking spatial aptitude.   Give me twenty pieces of luggage, and I can fit them into a trunk of a car neatly – even a Mini Cooper - with enough room left to squeeze in a brief case.  I find this challenging and fun. It’s like a puzzle.

Professional movers have this knack. I witnessed one who packed my belongings in his 53-foot moving van. He called it the “prairie schooner.” The driver had three other deliveries of furniture and personal effects he was hauling cross-country already in place.

When he came to the house, he looked at my cartons, furnishings and the odd sized lots; then assessing those dimensions, he mentally measured the empty space inside the van with the pieces already packed in. You could just see, and hear, his mind work, figuring out what to put where as he was instructing his assistant.

The van’s cab is the size of a small motel room – full-size sleeping bunk, mini-frig and a computer. The mover/driver scans all inventory data then prints it out. Mine was quite lengthy - reams and reams of stuff.

The moving experience exemplified the ancient Chinese dissection puzzle known as a “tangram.” 

It’s really an ingenious creation, consisting of seven flat geometric shapes:  five triangles –two small, two large and one medium size, plus a small square and a parallelogram, which are put together to form abstract or representational shapes. The objective of the puzzle is to form a specific shape given as an outline or silhouette format using all seven pieces made of plastic, cardboard or other materials, which may not overlap.

Fitted properly together the seven pieces form a large square. There is a mathematical relationship as well:  the two large triangles equal half of the large square; thus, the remaining five pieces, fitted together equal the other half of the large square’s area.

The tangram is simple, yet thought provoking, used in elementary schools to teach fractions and simple geometry. But there are other uses of the tangram that can illustrate how adults think outside of the box.  The tangram can be used in communication or in conflict-resolution exercises. It’s a tool with many applications.

An amazing illustration of using tools is the recent discovery of an invertebrate species, the veined octopus that uses “the split halves of a coconut shell for shelter.” It actually drags each half individually across the sea floor, and creates a “spherical hiding place.”

BP could learn a lesson.

A Presidential Friendship

Yellow school buses edged their way into the fray of flashing red and blue police cars.

But it wasn’t kids who emerged. We were thirty adults from Falmouth brought to the Hynes Convention Center to see Governor Patrick and his good friend, Harvard classmate and Chicago neighbor, President Barack Obama.

But before going into the auditorium, our bus group waited in a holding area with twenty or so other groups from towns and cities across the state. Thousands of us strangers mingled biding time. We were a diverse group of all ages – white, brown, yellow, and red.

Asians, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, African-Americans, American Indians rubbed shoulders, united to rally Patrick’s re-election, and see his buddy the President of the United States.

A little girl riding her mother’s shoulders took photographs; a senior woman carted her Boston Terrier service dog; a group of Buddhist monks from Lowell sat stoic on the concrete floor; a hip-hopper danced for the crowd.

It was a scene out of central casting and Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

I met an art consultant dressed in a colorful African print outfit from Springfield. She lives in the Classical High Condominiums, the same building I attended high school. It was converted to a residence in 1986, twenty-three years after my graduation in 1963.

Talking with Rosemary brought me back to my high school years. My closest friend, Mark Wayne, was president of our 1963 class.

Mark was smart, funny, and articulate. He enjoyed holding court, debating pros and cons of issues on a flip chart.  He’s still smart and a whiz. But these days he uses technology tools to make his point.

Not one to be in the lime-light, preferring a behind-the-scenes involvement, I became a member of his “cafeteria cabinet.”

After graduating, he went Ivy League. I took the low road to the Cactus Circuit. I chose the southwest looking for new adventures beyond our western New England roots.

Our paths took each of us through corporate positions, media posts, and non-governmental organizations; ultimately we each became a freelancer, marketing our respective skill sets we learned over the years.

We’ve remained in touch for the past fifty-plus years no matter where we hung our shingle.  At one time we both lived in California across the San Francisco Bay from each other.

He earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health at UC-Berkeley. He was hired by the United Nations posting him to third world countries. I took a journalism class and followed him to Nepal to photograph and write travel articles.

He married, once, twice, three times – who’s counting? I followed a single’s lifestyle, lusting for visas to new destinations, seeking human-interest stories. I traveled with a notebook and cameras as companions.

Eventually, he settled in Indonesia, living a happy lifestyle with Nicole, a psychotherapist; he’s now a certified Life Coach. I visited there, too and bounced around Bali.

I finally settled down on the Cape. I believe that we search half of our life for the ideal place to live the rest of our life.

Our friendship is still strong. We’re in touch through Skype and email. Mark’s last stateside visit was this year for his mother’s funeral. She was my second mother, a retired bookkeeper, bridge player, computer teacher to seniors, and was an active community volunteer through her nineties.  She felt living to be 96 was enough already. So she just closed her eyes. No pain, no suffering.

Finally our bus group was led up to the auditorium.
It felt like the penultimate class reunion with more than 8000 classmates, none of who looked familiar. We stood nearly three hours on the convention floor in our personal four-foot square spot waiting to see the Governor and President - two old friends - embrace and to hear their message.

James Taylor warmed up the already overcooked crowd. He sang, “You Have a Friend”, written by his friend, Carole King.

The lyrics brought me back again down memory lane. I reflected on Mark’s campaigning for class president. He had the makings to be The President up on that stage in front of me.

In seventh grade, we made the Bar Mitzvah rounds, proud to be a “fountain pen.”  (Fountain pens used to be the iconic gift of the bar mitzvah, a symbol of manhood handed down at this rite of passage from one generation to the next.) In our adolescence, we had hot parties and danced to 45 rpm hit tunes of the day.

Suddenly the crowd went wild.  President Obama walked on stage, embraced Patrick. Each waved to the wave of cell phone cameras.

Fifty years had just flashed in front of me. I saluted Mark and our long lasting friendship. And prayed for the years ahead for our re-elected Governor and his friend.

The World of “Dino-tsuris”

In our brave new world of high technology, predator drones, iPads, and iPhones, we still live in a dinosaur age.  “I Carumba!”

Dinosaurs are in the news, it seems, every other day. For example, The Washington Post, in January, had an article by Ariana Eunjung Cha asking, “What killed the dinosaurs? Scientist Wang Haijun thinks the answer may be buried inside a 980-foot-long ravine in the Chinese countryside southeast of Beijing where hundreds of the creatures may have huddled in the final moments before their extinction,” she writes, theorizing that a catastrophe made them extinct.

Another article and BBC pod cast, also, in January, speak of “an early four-winged, feathered dinosaur appears to have been a good glider, …providing clues about the origin of flight.” And yet another, in the same month in the UK’s Telegraph, discusses: “Early feathered dinosaurs, the ancestors of birds, were covered in yellow and white stripes claim British scientists who reveal the true colours of the prehistoric creatures for the first time.”

And just two weeks ago, fossils of a previously undiscovered species were unearthed in Utah.

I’ve heard from my brethren sources that a group of Talmudic scholars convened this past Purim (March 10) to discuss the veracity and significance of a species that lived during the “Jew-rassic” period.

(Purim is a joyous Jewish holiday commemorating when my people living in Persia – they don’t write, they don’t call – were saved from extermination.  The story is told in the biblical book of Esther.)

According to Rebbe Shlomo, his discovery of classified paleontology records show that an offshoot of kosher eating dinosaurs lived in a ghetto — or was it a grotto? — in what is now Iran? He named the species “dino-tsuris.”

This particular species have been giving scholars a lot of grief!
Also, very, very old cave drawings, picture herds of dino-tsuris as mischievous looking, like they were looking for trouble.

I can relate to such a species.  I’m a dinosaur myself; I am having a difficult time converting to the digital photography world.  I go crazy with these new gadgets and camera equipment.

But in the real news, the Boston Globe ran a story last November about a “newly discovered dinosaur species that might help explain how these creatures evolved into the largest animals on land” Scientists call the species the “Aardonyx celestae, a 23-foot long, small headed herbivore with a huge barrel of a chest.”

It brought to mind my own discovery years ago, while visiting Rapid City, South Dakota. Why it’s called “Rapid” is a mystery itself; it is very slow-paced bordering on being almost vapid. But I did enjoy being there, especially touring the Geology Museum at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

No matter how technologically advanced corporations like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Intel among others is, and we’re always revisiting the Dinosaur Age. It’s a link to our future somehow.

It was here in South Dakota during the 1980s, that cattle and sheep rancher Jennings Floden unearthed a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull on his property. The skull measured four feet.  Floden donated it to the Rapid City museum. It is the first T. Rex skull found in South Dakota; only five others have been excavated in North America.

There’s a kitschy Dinosaur Park on a hilltop overlooking Rapid City, consisting of five, life-size dinosaur species: Apatosaurus Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Brontosaurus. Constructed of concrete and iron pipe framework, they were created as a WPA project (Works Progress Administration) during the 1930s.

So, here we are, seventy-odd years later, still looking at the dinosaur record. We’ve never left the Dinosaur Age. The interesting significance of this new find of species is that it is thought to be a missing link of the “saurapod  (lizard-footed) evolution.”

According to Australia paleontologist Adam Yates,  “this creature walked on its hind legs but also could drop to all fours.” Not even Barney, the popular children’s television T. Rex, does that.

The gist of the article is that scientists have been curious, maybe obsessed as to “why and how dinosaurs grew into such massive creatures, a question that scientists have been trying to answer”.  And recently a judge will have to find an answer, too.

Or perhaps Weight Watchers, Inc. and Jenny Craig can shed some light.

Both of these “heavy-duty” corporations   are battling each other in the courts. It’s a battle of dinosaurs, pitting the Jennyaurus pound for pound with Weight-A-Minuteaurus.

WW claims that JC falsified statements in a TV ad featuring spokesperson and former heavyweight Valerie Bertinelli that “clients lost twice as much weight as those on the Weight Watchers program.”

Schlomo and his band of scholars are onto something. There’s always some “tsuris” going on, no matter what.

Ed. Note:  the word “tsuris” is Yiddish, meaning trouble or aggravation.

In my mind’s eye: Life in the slow lane

In Beijing last August during the 2008 Olympic games, Usain Bolt ran the 100-meter dash in 9.69 seconds. Not only was it a world record, it is the first time a human being ran that distance in under 9.7 seconds. And then this August 2009 in Berlin, he beat his own record, running the 100 in 9.58.

This is the ultimate of “life in the fast lane”! Bolt is from Jamaica. How is it that the fastest man in the world comes from Jamaica, the quintessential place to “take it light, mon,” in Caribbean patois? Is there a disconnect here?

Bolt’s achievement is phenomenal, an incredible achievement of prowess, athleticism, discipline and training.

I hail from the life-in-the-slow-lane school. I like to stop and smell the roses. I hate to rush to get to some place. Why do people always rush to beat the rush? I don’t get it.
“Take it slow” is my mantra. I chant it slowly every morning

One of my all time favorite, hilarious comedy sketches is Bob and Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America”. Just the concept of their bit is cracking me up now; I feel some serious chuckling coming up. Let me calm down so I can quote Wikipedia:

“…Ray Goulding interviews Bob Elliot, who is playing the President ‘and Recording Secretary’ of the Slow Talkers of America. Instead of drawing his individual words out, Bob speaks the words at a normal speed, but leaves long pauses between them.
Ray starts guessing what the next word will be, and speaking his guesses out loud during the pauses, in frustration at waiting. At first he is fairly successful at guessing what Bob is going to say, but soon Bob starts intentionally changing his responses to make Ray’s guesses wrong. Ray’s frustration increase until he can’t take any more, and brings the interview to an end”.

Author Nick Laird, Glover’s Mistake, recently wrote in his column in “The Guardian,” “To read poetry now is to be part of a Slow Language Movement…Poetry needs quiet to be written, and is resistant to speed both in composition and comprehension. It is not for a fast life…”

A slow talker measures our patience. A fast talker taxes our mind. Recently, Charlie Rose brought his roundtable interview show – sans table – to Boston’s Wang Theater to talk with James Carville and Karl Rove. Maybe it was to instigate and embroil. Some billed the event as the “Raging’ Cajun versus the Mangy Rovin’”. Carville talks faster than it takes a Maserati to reach 0-60 mph in less than 5 seconds.

I wonder if fast talkers are fast drivers? Are fast drivers obsessed with fast food?
One alternative to the McDonalds, Burger Kings, Wendy’s and Taco Bells of the world, is the “slow food” movement.

The Slow Food USA’s Web site describes it as “an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and environment. Food is a common language and a universal right. Slow Food® USA envisions a world in which people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet.”

Recently, driving off Cape to Boston, I inadvertently got caught in commuter traffic. I always try to avoid this so as not to become one of those raging drivers who raise your blood pressure. It was a test to stay calm; it was an insight into my tolerance level for staying patient and coolheaded. I was driving solo, but oh, how I wished for another passenger so that we could breeze through the 12-mile HOV lane onI-93.

I knew cursing out the man who drives that mechanical zipper-like vehicle that spews out concrete blocks to make an additional traffic lane was useless. But it did almost rile me to see him sit smug and content in the cab of that monster machine oblivious to the thousands of cars moving at a snail’s pace.

Crawling along with others in a vain attempt to keep my mind busy, I thought of my photograph from Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. Two men on a deserted roadway are “walking” in syncopated rhythm, personifying life in the slow lane.

J.D. Salinger Memories

OK, here’s another “goddam” J.D. Salinger story to add to the fray about his passing which has been written to death, already. 

Holden Caulfield would say, “another phony writer exploiting me.” I’m no different either. Just looking for an angle.

Catcher in the Rye was quite a painful experience for me.

I read it in a hospital bed recovering from an emergency appendectomy, literally splitting my sides laughing. I needed some extra days to just heal from the surgery. Reading about Holden Caulfield’s adventures didn’t exactly keep me in stitches!

I was sixteen years old then. I morphed into becoming “The Question Mark”, a variation of Salinger’s ex-preppie narrator character. It was an out-of-mind experience. I began to question authority, my parents, the world – myself. For me Catcher in the Rye was more than a “coming of age” read; it was a “growing into rage” episode during my adolescence.

High school in the mid 1960s was a pivotal and poignant time for this adolescent.  One Christmas school vacation, I didn’t exactly “run away” from home; I just took a train to Grand Central station without telling anyone. A day later I called to check in with no explanation.  I had no plans in New York City, other than to drop in on friends I knew living in Long Island, Brooklyn and Westchester County. I was channeling a Holden Caulfield adventure.

Arriving in New York, I miraculously, bumped into my friend Sammy and his mother right there in the center of Grand Central station by the information kiosk. I knew Sammy from my very early days growing up in Baltimore, where I used to re-visit after moving to western Massachusetts during middle school.

Imprinting on the Caulfield persona, instilled a self-confidence in me, an independent soul; I had no fears about meeting new people, seeing new places; wondering and wandering about life, gave me an adventurous spirit. I’m still the ever “wandering Jew” even now in my sixties. Salinger, too, was born of Jewish heritage.  What’s with our wandering already? Is it just in our genes, anyway? Soon I’ll be eligible for Medicare. Holden would call it, “Who-really-cares?”

Do you ever wonder what Salinger looked like?  The only photograph I’ve seen that seems to exist is the 1951 publicity shot taken for the release of Catcher in the Rye. (Though the February 8 issue of the New Yorker magazine ran a few of him with a Lillian Ross remembrance piece.)

I think that because no one really recognized him except for a few, that he actually lived a normal public life – perhaps under an assumed credit card name, - than the hermit he was perceived as.

I wonder, too, how one becomes reclusive, or develops a propensity for not wanting to be around people.  I can’t imagine myself not traveling and being among others. I live to observe diversity, ethnic faces, modes of dress, people’s body language interacting, emoting with others. I use a camera to record such observations.

Salinger used his mind, imagination and writing for creating conversation and character; his branding of snap shots of people, places and the human condition touched 65 million book buyers, worldwide, since its publication.  Translated: that’s a lot of film and a huge digital file.

Another roguish fictional character that struck a chord with me was Sebastian Dangerfield created by writer J.P. Donleavy, from his book, The Ginger Man, published in 1955.

Sudden thought: Do you think Holden and Sebastian were fraternal twins born in different years? Or maybe J.P and J.D. were brothers separated at birth? And why do people use their initials, anyway?

Also an anti-establishmentarian, Dangerfield is an Irish Trinity collegian with a chip on his shoulder; he wears tweed jackets patched with immorality, dishonesty and deceptiveness on his sleeves.  While I don’t exactly identify nor believe in him, Sebastian Dangerfield has an independent streak. I read the book in college at Syracuse; but after that fall semester, the change-of-scenery syndrome hit me, as did those single-digit temperatures; so I drove back to the U. of Arizona, re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road; another writer for fodder of finding oneself.

Of the various journalists’ impressions that celebrate, honor or remember Salinger, Adam Gopnik’s in the February 8 New Yorker resonates my sentiments:
 “…Yet though he may seem to have chosen a hermit’s life, Salinger was no hermit on the page. And so his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm…As for Holden Caulfield, he is so much a part of the lives of his readers that he is more a person to phone up than a character to analyze…”