December 25, 2017

Christmas Memories

It's a quiet Christmas day for me this year; hit a movie and Indian food with a friend last night, and spent some time cleaning up a Christmas morning snowstorm, and a dinner invite, if I decide to go, is not until much later today. Family Christmas, such as it is, will be Wednesday the 27th. So, prompted by some reminiscing last night with a friend as well as a xmas eve phone call with my brother, I decided to jot down family Christmas memories.

If there is a family mythology around Christmas, it lies with my mother. Coming from a working class family of 10 without a lot of money to spend at the holidays, mom would relate the story of how, her first xmas out of the house and employed as a nurse, she lavishly bought gifts for all of her family, and was so excited about that - until they were stolen from her car. I think she resolved to never let a Christmas be disappointing from there on; and over-gifting was the order of the day throughout out childhood, and for many years after. I recall my first year out of school, working in Bristol CT, driving my Olds Cutlass Ciera, packed to the gunnels, back to MA for the holidays - replaying my mom's history (without the thievery).

I remember as a child being given some money and being turned loose at Hills Department store to find stuff for the family. I'm fairly certain there were some tacky candles, statues, trinkets, etc. that hung around the house for years because we kids had bought them for mom and dad for xmas.  

We'd do some outdoor decorations - there was an outdoor creche (or to us, a "manger scene") - plastic figurines with a folding wooden shelter and cradle. I vaguely remember them with a interior bulb, but I do not remember power distribution, so I'm guessing we just had a spotlight for the scene. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Wise Men, Shephard, sheep, donkey, and camel. One year the christ child disappeared, traumatizing all of us. We left a little note in the cradle asking whoever took it to return it - it showed up eventually in one of the bushes. There were also large plastic candles by the front door (these I do remember lighting up) and a small plastic santa that lighted up in a front window. There would be some smallish light strings - on a bush or front railing. Dad was never the "get up on a ladder to hang xmas lights" kinda guy.
Our family plan, when we were younger, was that dad would procure the tree a few days before the holiday, and put the lights on. But Santa Claus decorated the tree - we'd go to bed with the lighted but otherwise plain tree, and wake up to a full-on Christmas spectacle. Similarly, Santa brought all the gifts - there would be a smattering of present from relatives and neighbors, but the pile of presents under the tree were similarly timed for full effect Christmas morning. I have no idea how those xmas eve's went with mom and dad working together to make a nice christmas morning; but hope it was a romantic and special time for them.

I remember one year that my Aunt and her boyfriend / husband to be came over to spend Xmas eve with my parents; recall getting a knock-off hotwheels set (yellow track instead of orange, and one long piece that unrolled rather than sections) from them which I happily played with before we were herded into our bedrooms.  

Stockings would be hung, traditional red / white with sparkled applied names; later on mom made us stockings out of holiday craft / quilting fabric. Cookies and milk left for santa along with a carrot for Rudolf.

There are probably some photos around, but my folks were taking slide photos back then; so a lot of them are either gone or stashed somewhere.

Part of the process of "no presents until xmas" was that the house was filled with hidden presents - closets, attic, garage, car trunk, laundry hampers, you name it. It became part of the pre-holiday mischief and fun (much to mom's consternation, no doubt) to poke around looking for presents, and to report on any findings to my sister (my brothers being a bit young for it all). Mom would wrap things as soon as she got them, and we became good at surreptitiously opening the end to see if we could figure it out. I can recall a few instances of finding things I thought were for me that did not end up under the tree - always wondered if mom took them back because they had been found. In hindsight, that seems like way too much effort; more likely, they were for cousins, or perhaps our parents teamed up with neighbors or relatives to keep each others presents safe from prying eyes.

The tree was always real in our youth - with incandescent bulbs (which seem like such a horrific fire risk, looking back) and the silver hanging tinsel which clogged the vacuum and the carpet. We had a stash of what seemed liked ancient "Shiny Brite" ornaments, a real mish-mash without any real theme. I think we looked upon folks with artificial, or more themed / crafted trees suspiciously; similarly, one of our relatives always had a silver tree with multi-colored spotlight which seemed a little tacky (but retro cool these days).

Later, when my sister and I out-grew Santa but my brothers were still young, we were welcomed into the Christmas eve tree decorating cult - we'd bicker over the ornaments (there were often multiples so we'd each get a "golf ball", and "icicle" or other special ornament to hang) and mom would supervise the placement, the drape of the ornaments, the balance of the bulb colors, and finally, the tinsel, which had to be placed individually, strand by strand. Long before "Elf on the Shelf" we had a few xmas elves; some hung on the tree, some found homes in various xmas sleighs or decorations throughout the house.

There was something very special about the ornaments, memories put away each year and brought out again. There was a thick felt (probably asbestos, thinking about it) santa with glued on sparkles and a sticker face that dad was said to have made as a child; was always special but especially after dad died in '79. Occasionally an ornament would fall and break,  and we'd mourn the hell out of it, a little piece of our family history slipping away.

After dad died, things started to slip. Mom started to decorate the tree ahead of the holiday to be able to enjoy it longer. Eventually the multi-colored incandescent bulbs gave way to mini lights, and tinsel gave way to garland, and an artificial tree was procured.  As mom aged and we moved out, coming home to set up the tree for mom was a December ritual. The family christmas tree decorations have stayed with mom's condo, purchased by my brother as mom transitioned into assisted living.
I'm probably the first to leave the family xmas nest; I had moved to CT and partnered up; my spouse and I were involved in church music so we'd have xmas eve, xmas day, midnight services to be part of (often in different churches and cities), along with her local family. So my family visits would be before or after the official day - we spent a lot of time on the road back then. For years our xmas was later in the day, at my sister's place in central MA. They sold that place a few years back, spending this year in their Florida home. Last year we spent the day with mom at her assisted living home. This year we're all at loose ends - brother who bought mom's condo is spending the holiday with his GF, I'm in CT, my other brother in MA. Neither of us really has the space to host or a drive to travel.

Somewhere along the line, I lost xmas. Part of that is religious - I'm not really all that christian anymore, if anything I kind of push back at christianity as the official state religion. I had a culturally jewish partner for many years - so no real xmas clebration there. I'm sort of outside the loop in terms of friends, family, etc. with small kids. I've been self employed for 20+ years, so there's no office parties or work social activities. And as close to a spiritual community as I have these days is a non-sectarian yoga studio with a pretty heavy Jewish component among the teachers, students, management. So not a lot of Merry Xmas going on there.

But still, there are boxes of xmas ornaments and decorations in my basement closet - and though I've not brought them out in years, I have also not thrown them away. There is still hope....

December 15, 2017

RIP: Pete Tupy

Just got word yesterday that a gentleman named Pete Tupy was very sick - and this morning that he has passed.

Pete was the lead guitarist in my first (high school) band - me on rhythm guitar, Jim on bass, Mike on drums. We played mostly in Jim's basement. Pete was 3 years younger (15 to our 18) which seemed like a lifetime when you are that age - we called him "the kid" and I suspect contributed to his delinquency a bit. He was also cut from a different cloth - Keefe Tech to our Marian High School - and I suspect lived a rougher life than any of us.

We were all over the map musically but were strictly garage (or basement) band caliber - but Pete was a bit of a guitar savant - vibing Hendrix and Robin Trower and a bunch of other guitar heroes I'm not cool enough to know about or remember - a real guitar wizard.

I've lost track of him over the years; went searching online just now and found this article: Framingham photographer captures faces of rural Peru

There is also a crowd-funding site from 2015 with a couple of pictures, and Pete is remarkably recognizable despite the years and the miles. From all reports the miles were hard.

See you 'round, kid. Show Jimi a trick or two if you get the chance.

November 11, 2017

Memories of York, PA: Report Cards

While digging out the school photos, I stumbled upon a remarkably complete (all save 1st Grade) set of grade school report cards.
Dad's signatures were remarkably legible (for him),
other years, mom signed my report cards "Mrs. William Russell"

The A+ were sources of pride, the B+ were affronts. Not really sure what happened in social studies that year, I pulled straight A's in 7th grade. I imagine my cockiness and inability to study / bear down (never having had to learn those skills) occasionally rubbed some teacher the wrong way. Pretty sure mom and dad did not buy the "C+ Above Average" argument. Amused by the McDonald's stamps, I think we got a free burger or something.

We had a custom of signing report card covers (kind of quaint, note the local ads) and I've retained just two of these - 5th grade and 8th grade. 5th grade had a lot more signatures (albeit a lot less legible), I think, knowing my family was headed to Massachusetts that summer, and I would not be accompanying my classmates to York Catholic High, I was already checking out a bit. My friends David Luck and Tom Brady signed though, and references to Groucho / Marx Brothers.  
And while I have these out, a canonical list of my grade school homeroom teachers:
  • Kindergarten (East York) - Mrs. Virginia Klein
  • 1st Grade - Miss Lonsdorf
  • 2nd Grade - Mrs. Gerard Roventini / Principal - Sr. Justina Marie 
  • 3rd Grade - Mrs. Donald Kroft / Principal - Sr. Justina Marie 
  • 4th Grade - Sr. Patricia / Principal - Sr. Justina Marie  
  • 5th Grade - Mrs. Danner / Principal - Sr. Lorraine
  • 6th Grade - Mrs. McNeil / Principal - Sr. Lorraine 
  • 7th Grade - Sr. Martha / Principal - Sr. Gordon Marie 
  • 8th Grade - Sr. Alice / Principal - Sr. Gordon Marie  
Apparently I never knew any of my lay teachers' first names, since I only see last names (and in the early years, their husband's name)

Memories of York, PA: St. Joseph's School

Except for a year of kindergarten, in public schools, I was a Catholic School kid. I spent all 8 years of grade school at St. Joseph Catholic School in York, PA

Grades 1 - 3, I went to the downtown York primary school, which I've documented a bit here.
Sidebar: A perfect example of why blogging is a dying art; I remembered posting these photos and memories, but thought I had done it here. Nope. Facebook. 100s of perfectly bloggable posts have been posted on social media instead over the past years. 
Definitely a different world, when a parent would put a first grader on a bus to a downtown (inner city) school miles away.
Image: Google Maps
I have a handful of memories or anecdotes from that school:
  • Serving mass (super early) at the church next door. Dad would have to drive me to services and go to mass himself. We'd also get tapped for occasional weddings (weekends, we'd get tipped) and funerals (weekdays, we learned to suck it up and not cry, and also got out of school for a few hours)
  • My first grade teacher, Miss Lonsdorf, who kind of traumatized me in terms of art. We were coloring some sort of potato based leprechaun for St. Patrick's Day (I'm 60% Irish so the problematic potato famine iconography is OK). I got chewed out for coloring vertically rather than horizontally. I've never given art a chance since. 
  • Serving on the school safety patrol. I remember a white cloth belt / sash (which mom dutifully bleached), a badge, and some sense of responsibility / power, even in 3rd grade. 
  • Getting tasked with putting up / taking down the American flag in front of the building, along with stern directions about folding and not letting the flag touch the ground. 
  • Recess in the parking lot between the school and the church, as well as behind the church
Image: Google Maps
I struggled to post these (violating one of my own sacrosanct policies of no pre-transition photos) but when you hang on to childhood treasures, they must be shared.

St. Joseph's School, York, PA, Grade 3 / Mrs. Kroft's Class (1969-1970)

When we lived in York, St. Joseph had an annex or elementary school (Grades 4 -  8) out in East York, near our home. No bus involved from Grades 4 - 8, instead we walked or (more often) rode a bike.

Image: Google Maps
When we lived in York, it was just the school, a large parking lot, and a lot of grass. There would be one mass a week held in the elementary school gym. Years later the parish moved the church over to the "annex" and sold off the downtown buildings.

Lots of memories from this property:
  • Being the "manager" (i.e. water boy) for the grade school basketball team. The school's one African-American, a kid named Keith, was an all star center - as close to diversity as I got back in the day. Protestants were exotic, Jews unknown, and persons of color were just not in my world. To my parents' credit, Keith came to my birthday parties, I held on to a card from him (which seemed far more 60's hip than anything else in my life) for many years. 
St. Joseph's School, York, PA - Boy's Basketball (1974-1975)
Back Row: Jack Angelo (coach), George Johnson, Chris Boyle, Jan Slobozien, Joe Scerbo, Dan Meehan, John McGowan, Marty, Moynihan, Me (manager), Artie Full (manager), Matt Moynihan (coach)
Front Row: Kevin Ochs, Mike Boldin, Joe Corcoran, Tim Marks, Keith Alleyne, John Moquin, Brian Lau

 I'm not particularly tall when lined up with the mostly 6th and 7th graders in the back row, my 8th  grade peers were the manly dudes in the front row. I was, in hindsite, quite the runt.
  • Playing folk mass (wall of guitars, all strumming in furious unison). In those days before electronic tuners, one person would tune to a pitch pipe or tuning fork, and we'd all tune to that person, and must have been a gloriously atonal mess.  
  • Taking down the seating after mass, before the home basketball games. The chairs would go on long rolling carts, which rolled under the stage. To this day I kind of like putting tables and chairs away. 
  • For some reason, I ended up being one of several kids tapped to open up the school. We'd ride our bikes to arrive early, get in through the kitchen, and open up the metal security gates for the nuns, who would arrive en masse in a station wagon from the downtown convent. I think we could get our fingers in to unscrew the bolts holding the gates to the floor, the gates would open 18" or so for early arriving staff and teachers. Once the nuns arrived with keys we would unlock the gates and stow them for the day. 
  • Sr. Kathleen, a rabid Phillies fan, who would sit us in order of performance on the last math test, and task the person in seat #1 (star pupil, no need to really pay attention) with listening to the game on the radio with an earphone, and report any scores.
  • Sr. Alice, a tall drink of water who was also the gym teacher, and I suspect excelled in basketball and volleyball in her own school days. 
  • Sr. Patricia Anne Doyle, who got that I was one wounded little kid behind my "smartest kid in the school" exterior, and tried to round me out a little.  
  • Sr. ________ (name escapes me) who would show 35 mm filmstrips, with cassette tape soundtrack, and would fall asleep. We'd go (quietly) wild, make sure to rewind the film to the start before she awoke.
  • My nemesis, a kid named Francis W. I'm pretty sure our battle royale was for last place in the school pecking order. I think I got into a real fight with him at some point in my school career which must have been, in hindsight, pretty pathetic.
St. Joseph's School, York PA, 8th Grade Graduating Class (May 1975)
Notable above: Monsignor Topper (dad's bridge partner, front row center) and Sr. Alice to his right (she might have been the principal by then). No idea about the other priests nor the other teachers (one lay, one nun). Me and my two best friends (Tom Brady, David Luck) are second row, left.  My aforementioned nemesis is 2nd row from the top, 2nd from the right (looking kind of like he might be sorted into Slytherin, now that I think about it). The girls are notable for real dresses (not uniforms, what they wore every other day). And all that damned plaid - got to love the 70s.

Aside from Keith, not a lot of diversity, although looking closely at the faces (I don't recall many names)  there were probably a few middle eastern, Mediterranean, and Latino kids. But we all spoke English and we were all Catholic - so not much in the way of cultural diversity evident.

Truth be told, I adored the nuns, probably because they were mostly proto-lesbians with varying levels of butchness, sportiness, curious hobbies and interests, trying to find a place in a world that was not quite ready for who they were.

November 10, 2017

Swirling Winds of Change

I'm reminded this morning of the fragility of spaces, communities, resources, jobs. So many well-intentioned, delightful, and beloved restaurants, shops, arts spaces, music venues and yes, yoga studios, are unable to remain in business.

I'm grateful for the people who keep showing up: turning on the lights and the heat, making that first pot of coffee, and tallying the numbers at the end of the day. I'm grateful for the small business owners who invest time, money, work, and worry into keeping their doors open for themselves, their employees, their clients and customers. So few of us have the passion, the nerve, the discipline to even know where or how to begin.

Part of the yoga practice is developing the tools to deal with change. But it's never easy. Sending a little love out to all my friends and family caught in the swirling winds of change this week....

November 07, 2017

Memories of York, PA: Brighton Drive

November looks to be a slow month, work-wise, so I've decided it would be a good time to put down some memories of my childhood in York, PA. This will hopefully be a bit of a series, until I run out of places and themes from York. Here's a good blog about York's Past.

First stop - my childhood home on Brighton Drive.

My parents bought our brick raised ranch home in the Haines Acres sub-division on Brighton Drive brand new, circa 1965-1966. We lived there until the summer of 1974 when we moved to Framingham, MA. The home is still there and is well kept; the trees are taller, the houses seem shorter and squatter. Perhaps it's the influence of the Three Little Pigs, but I've always remembered the brick exterior of our home on Brighton Drive positively, as compared to wood shingles or siding in later homes. Zillow values it at $182K - not too shabby.

Looking at the house today, I recall that my bedroom (at least in later years, once our family was complete) was downstairs, under the living room bay window. The octogonal window in the garage was up pretty high for us kids but we liked to climb on boxes, shelves, or ladders to look out it (and look in from the front steps). Our parents kept the cars in the garage overnight, so it was mostly empty, but on rainy days mom would pull her car out into the driveway so we could hang out in the garage and play. There was a door into the backyard at the rear of the garage, and two doors into the house - one into the living spaces, a second into a laundry room along the back of the house.

One winter, the backyard froze solid and then thawed suddenly, and the bottom floor flooded through a rear slider in the family room; I remember being in my pajamas and snow boots, using a snow shovel to sweep the water through the house and into the garage, as dad dug a trench in the ice pack to take the water around and away from the house.

Image: Google Maps

A nice write-up about the Haines Acres community here:
"Curvilinear road layouts are typical of developments from this time period and tend to follow the rolling topography of the subdivision. The curves also serve to calm traffic in residential neighborhoods and are often used to market the safety of the development for families." ~ Living Places
 A bird's eye view is the first place to describe the neighborhood.

Image: Google Maps
Our neighborhood was really the block framed by Brighton Drive, Cambridge Road, and Alton Lane. The backyards were wide open back when we lived there, some young hedges, an occasional decorative fence, but nothing to really impede neighborhood wide games of capture the flag or flashlight tag, or winter sledding from up the top where Cambridge and Brighton met. We knew folks on both sides of Brighton but really the neighbors connected through the backyards, and when we went out to play the entire block was within our range.

I still remember the family names - on our side the Glass family, the Russells, the Kellys, the Eastmans. Behind us the Kaplans, the Quinns, the Keffers. Looking at the map, the five larger, newer homes on the far side of Alton Lane were built in the late 70's, after a large barn located on that spot (and used by the builder Epstein & Sons to store equipment and lumber) went up in flames (September 1975, soon after we moved).

Epstein & Sons provided a lot of entertainment for us kids; the neighborhood was in some sort of development throughout our time there, and we kids invariably found ourselves playing in the houses under construction. Kids would swipe wood from the scrap pile for forts, we play in the unfinished houses (surely way too dangerous in these more sanitized times) and we'd keep an eye out for "Epstein" in his El Camino, come to chase us off. 

Back in the day, a small creek (more of a gully or drainage ditch, I imagine) ran between the homes on Brighton Drive and Schoolhouse Lane; we'd spend long hours messing around in it - catching crayfish, following toys floated down the creek, wading in small pools. If I recall correctly, there were drainage pipes that ran into the creek from the street sewers, and adventurous hooligans (not I) would crawl into them and spy on people from the storm drains.

I don't remember much about the neighbors. The Quinn family directly behind us were fast friends (to this day, June Quinn mourns the loss of my mom more than we kids do) and had three kids around our age - Karen, Rob, and Sue. One house up from them was Alan Kaplan (who picked up the regrettable moniker of "Fudd", no idea why). He had pretty good toys and brand name snack food, if I recall correctly. The Eastman family, down two houses on Brighton, also had kids our age, I think there was a Guild and Katherine our age, as well as Linda (older) who babysat us now and then.

I also remember a kid (Craig? maybe) way down Brighton near Sundale in a more traditional single story ranch that I played with occasionally. I remember playing Risk and Stratego and setting up basement spanning wars using soldiers.

Three other memories from that house and period:
  • We had a small metal box on the front porch and would have milk delivered (and leave the empties for collection). I suspect somewhere in the family archives there's a picture of one of us on the front steps (first day of school photo) with the milk box in evidence. It made a nice place to sit, and we kids would hide stuff in there as well. 
  • When it rained, the street had small, curved gutters or gullies to catch and carry the rain water, and that would be a fine place to set a boat or ball and follow it as the water carried it down the street, so long as you caught it before it hit the drain.
  • When it snowed (not all that often) construction road graders would be used to plow the streets. When we moved to Massachusetts, I was quite confused to find rather pedestrian dump trucks with plows affixed in use, and thought perhaps that was because MA could not afford proper snow plows.    
I'll be continuing this series - here's a bit of a placeholder for myself and preview of what is to come:
  • East York Elementary School
  • York Suburban Middle School
  • St. Joseph's Elementary Center
  • Wisehaven Swim Club
  • Hill's Department Store
  • Jay's Supermarket
  • Misericordia   

September 28, 2017

Vietnam War on PBS

Count me among the many who have been riveted to our local PBS channel the past week or so, watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's opus on what we in the US call the Vietnam War.

My generation (born in 1961) did not really have a war. My father's Navy service straddled the Korean and Vietnam conflicts; rumor has it that my mom (Navy nurse) got pregnant with me to avoid going to Indochina. And by the time Desert Storm rolled around I was pushing 30. I did, however, grow up with Vietnam in the background; body counts on the evening news, Nixon (I don't remember Kennedy or Johnson) speaking to the American people. I've got one uncle who served in country and brought back both physical and emotional scars. But for all that, the Vietnam War has colored my world more than any other military conflict.

Social media has pulsed a bit about the documentary. Leftie-liberal friends are grousing about the short segment on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; more conservative have renewed their Jane Fonda noises. I'm watching our western privilege that makes this OUR war when the country and the people of Vietnam suffered so much more deeply and grievously in the Resistance War Against America. I don't really have a lot of strong emotion around it at this point, so I'm staying out of such conversations, and appreciating the film for what it is. And quite frankly, it's amazing.
I'm not going to go deep into it, but here are a few snippets that have moved, impressed, and informed me:
  • The French / Colonial background. Solid information that I did not really know or understand. 
  • The government and military aspects of the war from the North Vietnamese side. Ho Chi Minh as freedom fighter and inspirational figure long after he stepped back from military or political leadership; all of those offensives that were, in the short term, huge failures.
  • The government and military aspects of the war from the South Vietnamese side.  
  • The difference between the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong, and the ARVN vs. US forces, way these all interacted throughout the conflict. 
  • All that damn bombing.....understanding when and when and who ordered. 
  • The map, all those place names that have become code for VETERAN / WAR / PTSD in the culture (song, writing, poetry, reference) - understanding their place on the map, their place in the timeline of the war, the cost in lives. 
  • The scheming and dissembling of all of the US presidents - Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. I guess I always saw Nixon as someone who the presidency corrupted, and this film makes it clear he was an SOB from the get-go. 
  • Jane Fonda. I guess I never really knew just how problematic she was (not simply visiting, but the things she said) and how visceral the hatred. Amazing (and unsettling) footage of her time in Hanoi.  
  • Historical figures. John McCain and John Kerry are not interviewed, but their archival footage is there testifying to their experiences and historical significance. 
  • The music. It may not have been my war, per se, but it is my music, and hearing it in temporal context with the historic backdrop is very powerful. Both the context in which the music was written, and the way it was received, interpreted and claimed by those both in country and back home.
But mostly, it's the story of the men (and women) who fought (on all sides), those who had changes of heart, those who were captured, those who were wounded, those who were killed. Heart-breaking in so many ways. And such courage to sit before the camera 40 or 50 years later. 

One last night; I'll be sitting there, rapt. And I suspect I'll be back at it again in the near future - definitely too much here to digest in one viewing. 

September 04, 2017

R.I.P. Walter Becker of Steely Dan

Steely Dan was never really my bag; I liked my rock with rougher edges, simpler chords, and a little less craft. I've never owned their music and I'm pretty sure I have never listened to a Steely Dan album front to back. Nevertheless, I've cued up Aja and Pretzel Logic on Amazon Music this morning in honor of the recently departed Walter Becker.

Remarkable how familiar this stuff is - I'm sure it's been ground into my subconscious through a thousand repetitions - on FM radio in high school and college, later in grocery stores, elevators. It was truly ubiquitous. In a 2003 interview:
Q: You are both longtime jazz devotees. Does it cause you any consternation that Steely Dan has been embraced in recent years by “smooth jazz” radio, one of the most vapid formats extant?

BECKER: “In a way it’s ideal. The more of what our music does violates the premise of its format that it’s presented in, the better. So, hearing our music in the supermarket, a Muzak version, is great. Don’t you think? I always feel fulfilled by that.”
 The funny thing is, I think I'd probably dig the songs a lot more if I heard the demo version (less laid back, stripped down, less polished) or if someone put together a compilation of covers by punk / blues / folk leaning artists.

 Rest of the interview here; it's pretty interesting.

August 07, 2017

Falcon Ridge 2017

So a recurring theme of my life for many years is that I find some thing, some place, some event, some community that I enjoy, value, cherish. I seek to support this entity; I volunteer, I teach, I rise to what I jokingly refer to as my "level of incompetence". And I realize that whatever magic is happening, that I may be instrumental in creating or supporting, I am unable to participate in because I am so involved in making it happen.

The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival has become like that for me. I love this festival this community. I work my ass off for weeks before the fest setting up the merch spreadsheet, and over the four days of the fest. I buy supplies that exceed the cost of a camping ticket, without compensation because I know the fest runs on fumes, financially. Yet I am wholly detached from it. This year, I did not sit in front of a single stage, did not join a single song circle. I barely had time for a shower (1 in four days) or sit-down meals in the volunteer tent (2 in four days). I opened up the merch area at 9 am daily, I closed it down after 11, and I rarely left the merch tent except for short breaks - effectively 14 hour workdays.

I noticed. At the closing song, the dudes from Adam Ezra Group who were checking out merch stopped, faced the stage in a sort of reverence. I chugged past with my head down, a box of CDs in my hands, a queue of artists lined up to check out, knowing that while everyone was at Five Brothers enjoying their post fest meal, I'd still be counting CDs so dammit, no time to stop. Jesus, Buddha, Woody, Pete, and Bruce Springsteen coulda been up there singing that damned song and I'd be oblivious.

So if I was surly this weekend, or short, or snapped at you, apologies. I love you all dearly. But it's hard not to be resentful of everyone for whom Falcon Ridge is this magical place, which is to say, most of you. It's really not that way for me. I show up every year, do my job, but more and more it's like I am tending a grave. Duty. Memory. Habit. This year I moved my campsite up behind the merch tent - in 2016 I never visited my campsite except to sleep; in 2017 at least I got to step away for short breaks, to change my clothes or grab a drink or to cook myself a little something, but it also served to isolate me from the volunteer community, from the folks I've camped near and with for 20+ years.

I've tried to change things from within over many years - but this fest operates with a level of inertia and stubbornness that resists such mission critical things as online ticket sales, a responsive website, an actual presence on social media. So "we've always done it this way" seems to be pretty much the answer to any suggestion or attempt to improve things. The fest pretty much operates exactly the same as it did in 1992.

This may finally be the year I step back, give someone else a crack at merch wrangling. It seems hard to imagine anyone else doing what I do, but of course someone will step up - if I got run over by a rogue golf cart, someone would have to. In the meantime, I watch my Facebook timeline filled with love and memories and warmth from the festival weekend that people look forward to all year with both wistfulness and resentment. I'd love to go to that festival, it sounds like fun.

July 13, 2017

Falcon Ridge Folk Festival - Volunteer Open Mic / Silly Songs

Because I'm pretty sure I've never cataloged or linked all of these:

2012 - to the tune of "I Love Rock n' Roll" 

2012 - to the tune of "I Love Rock n' Roll" (alternate version)

2011 - to the tune of "Candle in the Wind"

2010 - to the tune of "Miss American Pie"

 2010 - to the tune of "Miss American Pie" (alternate version)

June 08, 2017

Falcon Ridge Folk Festival - Emerging Artists and Most Wanted

It's getting to be that time again - time to fire up the spreadsheet and set up for the 2017 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival performer merchandise.

The 2017 Emerging Artists have been announced (although not yet posted on slowly updated FRFF website)

1 - Alice Howe (Boston, MA)
2 - Aly Tadros (Austin, TX)
3 - Bruce Michael Miller (Nashville, TN)
4 - Caroline Cotter (Maine)
5 - Christine Sweeney (Long Island, NY)
6 - Clint Alphin (Nashville, TN)
7 - Emily Mure (New York City)
8 - Frances Luke Accord (Chicago, IL)
9 - Hadley Kennary (Nashville, TN)
10 - Heather Aubrey Lloyd (Baltimore, MD)
11 - Izzy Heltai (North Adams, MA)
12 - James Hearne (Catskill, NY)
13 - John John Brown (Winter Garden, FL)
14 - Josh Harty (North Dakota)
15 - Letitia VanSant (Baltimore, MD)
16 - Lisa Bastoni (Watertown, MA)
17 - Monica Rizzio (Cape Cod, MA)
18 - No Good Sister (Philadelphia, PA)
19 - Ordinary Elephant (Houston, TX)
20 - Renee Wahl (Nashville, TN)
21 - Robinson Treacher (New York City)
22 - Ryanhood (Tucson, AZ)
23 - Shawn Taylor (New England)
24 - The End Of America (Philadelphia, PA)

1 - Cubbage (Philadelphia, PA)
2 - Pluck & Rail (Austin, TX)
3 - Three Quarter North (Upstate NY)

The 2017 Most Wanted (culled from the 2016 Emerging Artists) were announced some time ago:
The top voted artists from the 2016 showcase who have been invited to the 2017 Most Wanted Song Swap on our Main Stage are:
  1. LOW LILY in FIRST place, with just over 29% of the audience votes.
  2. KIRSTEN MAXWELL in 2nd place garnering 28% of the votes.
  3. BETTMAN & HALPIN – with 23% of the votes.
Several VERY HONORABLE MENTIONS this year. Kipyn Martin placed a close 4th place with just over 21% of the votes cast. If any one of the above artists cannot accept our invitation, Kipyn will be asked.

Also Chelsea Berry took 21% of the votes followed by Heather Mae with 15% to round out our 2016 honorable mentions.
 As the keeper of the merch sales data, I like to compare merchandise sales to the Most Wanted selections (audience polling) and here's how they stack up.

#1 - Bettman & Halpin (#3 in audience polling)
#2 - Chelsea Berry (#5 in audience polling)
#3 - Low Lily (#1 in audience polling, not coming to the fest in 2017, however)
#4 - Kipyn Martin (also #4 in audience polling, and coming as a Most Wanted alternate, yay!)
#5 - Jacob Johnson (did not place in audience polling)
#6 - Kirsten Maxwell (#2 in audience polling)

Not always a perfect match; artists price their merch differently, some do not bring enough and run out, some have additional merch (hats, shirts, etc.) that skews the numbers. Still, it's an interesting comparison to make each year.

Now back to work, starting to fill in as much of the spreadsheet as I can for 2017 . . .

May 12, 2017

Big Magic and Bold Music

Heading up to Kripalu this weekend for a workshop with the "Eat Pray Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert (and her punk rock hairdressr partner, Rayya Elias) who appears to have had an interesting life following her runaway hit book. Not 100% sure why; I had some long unused Kripalu credit and have been keeping an eye out for a suitable workshop; this one reached out and grabbed me.

I don't fancy myself an artist; more of a mechanic or technician in service of art. I create magic (and music) but generally serve the visions of others. If I keep and feed a genius it is in being able to see what needs to get happen (and getting it done) or what might go wrong (and ensuring it does not).

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the workshop. Rereading "Big Magic..." last night, Gilbert talks of her friend, author Ann Patchett:
"...Ann has a preternatural ability to render herself small - nearly invisible - in order to better observe the world around her in safe anonymity....her superpower is to conceal her superpower..."
 and then
"...It was as if she she'd thrown off her invisibility cloak and a full-on goddess stepped forth"
I had not read the book before the workshop called to me. But I suspect I'm going there for a reason....

April 07, 2017

Hitting from the Red Tees aka The Jude Heresies

This one crossed my social media path this morning - At Cromwell High, Transgender Athlete Competes With Girls For First Time (Hartford Courant, April 7, 2017)
Andraya's times in the 100 and the 200 are fast. A year ago, her 11.99 in the 100 would have won the Class M title and put her second at the State Open, .01 seconds behind the winning time. And Andraya ran Wednesday in cold conditions, and without starting blocks. She is expected to get faster.

"I know they'll say it is unfair and not right, but my counter to that is: Why not?" her mother said. "She is competing and practicing and giving her all and performing and excelling based on her skills. Let that be enough. Let her do that, and be proud of that."
No idea what the nontrans, cisgender young women are running, but one of the photos in the piece seems to imply that it's not even close.

For the record, I'm not a fan of transgender women competing with cisgender women in athletics where their physique, abetted by genetic difference, years of testosterone, and perhaps years of athletic encouragement and opportunities that other women may have not gotten. Every single young woman in this school, and in the league, will be automatically shut out of first place, competing for second. I'm pretty sure that women's athletics are not intended to assign (resign?) women to an automatic second place finish. But there you have it.

And for the record, I'm trans; I know of what I speak. Look, it sucks to be trans, and it means a lot of giving things up and second class citizenship and missed opportunities. But I'm also a feminist, and dammit, the harm that this does to the many nontrans women who will never have the chance to finish first as long as Andraya is running - well, in my opinion that outweighs the benefit to Andraya.

I had a friend who transitioned around the time that I did; she played tennis very well (was a top 16 player in her state, pre-transition). Post transition, she continued to play competitively, and invariably dominated every club or league she joined when she played in her age bracket, and often played competitively with women 10-20 years younger. Needless to say, the other players (often snooty country club types, to be fair) figured out she was trans, and they slowly and invariably ostracized her - disinviting her from tournaments, round robins, competitions because they knew she's always win. She went from club to club, league to league, getting her heart broken over and over.  And when she'd call to tell me her latest tale of woe my response was always the same "what did you expect?"

My tennis playing friend could have, I suspect, gotten along in the tennis world - by staying out of gendered competitions, by playing more casually, by coaching or offering her services as a playing partner to young women who needed a challenge to improve. She was not able to see that, or willing to accept that, and she struggled for many years as a result. 

I even see that in yoga; it's not a competitive sport, being trans (stronger, larger bodied) does not really provide any real benefit and probably is a handicap, and I've been off the "T" for nearly 20 years now. Yet here I am at 56 often practicing with folks 15-20 years younger, and as a teacher able to assist and support larger bodied students in ways that my cisgender peers (much more highly skilled and experienced) cannot.

This sort of attitude, of course, makes me a heretic within the trans community; one of many reason I am not active in that community. Because I do not see things as black & white, and there are a lot of problems that do need to addressed. Were I to step into the arena of rights, activism, legislation, etc. I know I'd be a distraction at best, muddying the waters, making things harder for others.

And of course, getting a bit meta, this makes me the "good tranny" the one who accepts my second class status, who is grateful for the breadcrumbs of social and cultural acceptance, who cisgender folks looks to as a transperson who does not make them uncomfortable, who does not make waves. So rest assured, even as I type this, my soul gets ripped apart just a little bit more.

April 06, 2017

National Theater Live: Twelfth Night Live Cast

I snuck out this afternoon (fittingly, in a bit of a local maelstrom) to see Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, livecast by the UK's National Theater Live over at Cinestudio.

Quite a delicious production. The usual gender swapping of the play (Viola disguising herself as a boy Cesario, and being taken for her brother Sebastian) was abetted by gender swapping two key parts - Malvolio (written male, played amazingly and heartbreakingly by Tamsin Greig) and the clown Feste (Doon Mackichan).

Gender was not the only game in town, with several male relationships leaning to or perhaps crossing over into the sexual, and the fourth wall coming down a bit as Greig includes the front row seats, and Daniel Rigby's Sir Andrew struggles with (and marvels at) the amazing rotating, three dimensional set and all of its various doorways, trapdoors, and contrivances. Reviews of the play on The Guardian, Time Out, and the Telegraph.

One struggle I had was the casting of black actors as Viola / Sebastian (the only two principal POC) and it seemed a little tone-deaf - do they look alike to a mostly white audience? I'd have much rather seen a more uniformly diverse cast and a pair of siblings that were a little more playfully similar looking (a metrosexual Sebastian and a butchish Viola?). And this may be the play itself but when the sibling reveal comes, I had not gotten enough sexual tension between Orsino & Viola / Cesario and Olivia's love transferred to Sebastian seemed unconvincing.

That being said, definitely worth seeing the encore performances (Cinestudio on April 16th). I love Shakespeare live when I can see it but the National Theater Live livecasts are the next best thing!

March 10, 2017


Once upon a time I could rely on my canine early warning system to alert me to distantly ringing doorbells, arriving delivery trucks, and just about anything else that he considered a threat or an intrusion. Even a doorbell on the radio or television that sounded like the real one would set him off.

In recent months, however, little Elo is slowing down a bit, losing his edge in the hearing department. Several times the doorbell has rung while I've been in the basement and he's not even aware of it. I've taken to keeping an ear out and have even myself wandered upstairs (thinking I've heard the bell) to find nobody there.

So I've scouted out the doorbell wiring (running openly in the basement ceiling) and DIY help on adding a second chime (I'll need to use the existing wiring as a pull wire to run a second feed from the old chime to the new chime)

But pretty simple stuff. I might even do a little audio browsing for a more mellow chime and buy two of those, and replace the more traditional "ding-dong" chime that came with the place.

March 07, 2017

Unusual Birthday Gift

What do you get for a somewhat precocious three year old for his birthday?

My brother suggests, for his son Griffin, "...his own key set if you want to get creative. He loves real keys."

I considered the gauntlet thrown down. Digging around electrical safety / contractor sites, I found a set of lockout padlocks - color coded, differently keyed.

Add some plastic key markers / collars to match (found those on Amazon) and a colorful, kid friendly key ring (to be purchased) and it's a color matching toy, a fine motor control toy, and a key obsession toy!

And since there are two sets of keys I'll make sure to put a second set of keys together for daddy, just in case Griff decides to lock something up secretly and daddy does not discover it until later.

March 04, 2017

Thanks, Mom

Mom passed away back at the end of 2016 . . . and after a flurry of activity as we cleaned out her assisted living and found homes for the things she had brought with her from her condo, we've been slowly finishing the process of settling her fairly simple estate.

Mom did a good job of not leaving a physical or financial mess for us to deal with. We went through the bulk of her possessions as she transitioned into assisted living last summer - I took a few pieces of furniture. But really, nobody wants your parents' stuff. So what remained were the things she used daily, and her memories and keepsakes.

She assigned a destination for her keepsakes - china, silver, jewelry and art while she was alive, and three of us got "assets" - I took her car (a 2010 Chevy Malibu, just 35000 miles on it), my brother purchased her condo (at a low-ball price, with a bunch of mom-funded improvements, her gift to her youngest grandchild), and my sister got her diamond ring (a reasonably pricey rock, who knew dad had it in him). I ended up with the "good china" - 12 settings plus serving pieces that dad ostensibly picked up in Japan when he was stationed there. I really did not want it - lacking a dining room, china cabinet, or the sort of life where I dine with 2 people, never mind 12. But after initially demurring, and noticing mom's palpable disappointment, I told mom I'd take it. I was not going to sell it while she was alive; but I recently price-shopped it on one of those china replacement sites that buy china - and found the offer for this particular set ($1 for a cup & saucer, $2 for a dinner plate) to be so ludicrously low that I'd be paying them (in terms of shipping costs) to take it. So if anyone wants to do a formal dinner.....I'm ready.

Mom was worried about money - but we did a back of the envelope calculation when her health started to fail early in 2016 and knew her money would probably outlast her. So we were happy to spend her savings down to make her comfortable and support her over the last year. Though her time at the assisted living was a bit more expensive (due to her need for personal care towards the end), she left a small sum of money to us as a legacy.

Her will split her assets five ways (four kids, plus one young grandchild); we independently decided to gift the brother who did not get a car / condo / diamond with $10K off the top to even things up. That left us each with about $14K, with another $8K to split via a life insurance policy. We decided to set a bit aside (just in case) as we finalize taxes and such; this past week I received a check for $12K.

It was not what one would consider a "set for life" windfall, but to me it's a wonderful boon - permitting me to completely pay off my consumer debt and to fill my retirement account for 2016. I set up the final credit card payments today, took some time to consolidate all my various monthly payments (a handful of charities, video subscriptions, and digital / office subscriptions) onto one card, and took the opportunity to cancel a few things I was not using (a music subscription, an online fax service, an amazon prime extra). My plan is to close out one of the two credit cards, use the second for subscriptions and online purchases, and pick up a lower cost / more reputable one for travel and "just in case".

It's a good solid "spring cleaning" of my finances - I'll be saving money (avoiding interest payments), reducing my monthly bills (my card payments were maybe $300 just to keep things at status quo), and keeping a better eye on the expenses I do have.  Who knows - maybe I'll even start to save or more fully fund my IRA.

It has felt as if mom were reaching back, to take care of me for one last time. And as I was telling this to a friend on the phone, I noticed a rare feeder visitor - a female cardinal. I'm not much for signs and spirits in general, but mom and her friend June had shared a belief that a cardinal is a representative of a loved one who has passed, and my sister has carried that through her passing, funeral, and over the past few months. I've got a suet feeder going though the colder months, and though I see a regular crew of woodpeckers, nut-hatches, titmouse, sparrows, and grackles, cardinals are not regulars. It felt a little like an affirmation, a blessing. 

So thanks, Mom. While I have not had to rely on your for money for money since right after I went out on my own, knowing you were there was always a comfort. I've been missing you a lot over the past weeks, more so than right after you died.  Know that even in death, you've reached back to take care of you always did. 

Cleaning up the Neighborhood

Was a little brisk to police the neighborhood today, but I was out earlier in the week with the unseasonably warm weather. I thought I had blogged about my habit / custom of picking up the neighborhood, but I see that Facebook sucked that particular energy out of me. So I thought I'd collect some social media musings here in only place . . .

Jan 14, 2013: On nice days like today I grab my litter pick-up tool ($1.99 at Harbor Freight) go pick up trash outside. It makes me feel better about my place and the neighborhood, and I'm all set for a chain gang / community service if it ever comes to that 

Oct 9, 2015: Heading out for my periodic policing of the neighborhood trash. Taking a big bag today because I know there's at least one pizza box out there. #hardhitten #newbritain

Mar 17, 2016: One of my little foibles is patrolling my neighborhood, picking up litter. I have a little litter-picker-upper stick (Harbor Freight) and generally pick up a grocery store bag worth of junk 2-3x a week.

David Sedaris was definitely an inspiration; walking my dog one day and feeling particularly punk about the condition of the area, I got one of those divine hits - who else is going to do it? Me, apparently.....

April 18, 2016: Dear Residents of Planet Earth:

If you are out hiking and eating an apple and chuck the core into the woods, that's cool. We'll take care of it.

If however, you eat an apple every day at lunchtime while you are walking around the neighborhood, take two bites, and chuck the mostly uneaten fruit under the same tree every single day so there's a dozen or so uneaten apples rotting....not cool. Such behavior will be duly noted on your permanent record.

Love, the Management

Dec 31, 2016: In other news, I took a real garbage bag out to do my regular neighborhood litter patrol this morning. I usually can get by with a small grocery store bag, but things had piled up between the snow, the holiday, and my attention being elsewhere. Neighborhood is officially cleaned up in time for 2017....

Now, I am fairly certain that my litter picking had it's roots in the humor of David Sedaris, although my routine predates this New Yorker article - Stepping Out: Living the Fitbit Life. I am, however, a somewhat obsessive listener of public radio that I am sure I'd heard David talk about his own litter picking, planting the seeds of my own habits.

I clearly recall the moment I started - walking the dog, noticing a rather trashed neighborhood of bottles, fast food trash, and other detritus, and thinking somewhat disdainfully "Whose job is it to pick this stuff up?". The answer came back swift and sure in that voice I've come to recognize as my own divine nature "Yours."

And so I venture out once a week or so - as time and weather and need dictate - with an inexpensive pick-up stick and a small plastic bag, and pick up the neighborhood litter. It may have started incrementally - policing the condo property when I took over as president, and expanding outward - now I've got about 1500 feet of city street I consider my turf.

It's a lower middle class neighborhood with a couple of manufacturing facilities - so I get a mix of household trash (fast food, kids meals), smoking material (packaging, cigarette and cigar butts), a reasonably frequent stream of liquor bottles (nips and 500 ml, mostly), and a smattering of soda, beer, and other beverage containers.

I don't recycle stuff (sorry, I have my limits, at least it's off the street), I tend to leave anything natural (including pet waste, branches, apple cores, etc.), and I wander down in front of the nearby apartments only on weekdays (when the tenants cars are not on the street) and when I have room in my bag (tends to be a lot of litter down that way).

I'm sure the neighbors think I'm crazy or scrounging for deposit containers. Although one guy walking his daughter did say simply "thank-you" recently. I have to say it makes me feel better about where I live; and I do scan my turf as I drive to and from home for fresh litter and make a mental note to get out for a clean-up. 

The biggest challenge for me is to send metta, loving kindness, to the folks for whom I am cleaning - the residents, tenants, homeowners, factory workers, and random passersby whose litter I am picking up. It's interesting to watch my mind try to descend into judgement, stereotypes, disdain. On my bad days the dialogue goes like this "the human beings are kind of pigs; glad I'm not one of them". On my good days, still that separation, but more kindness and love - like a mother cleaning up after her kids.

February 23, 2017

Sears, Roebuck and Co.

The death knell seems to have begun for Sears.

Sears, Roebuck & Company and I go back a long ways. When I was a kid, the annual arrival of the Sears catalog (and most importantly, the toy section) was an annual sign that Christmas was coming. My sister and I would take turns with it, putting cryptic notes beside things we wanted. There was an art to it - often a particular brand or type of toy would have multiple choices from low cost to extravagant, and we'd carefully gauge our preferences based on what we might have a chance of getting.

Oftentimes, simply looking at the toys and imagining owning them was more fun than actually having them!

And as a young, proto-trans kid, the dresses and women's clothing pages of the Sears catalog were an accessible, and fairly risk free read - I could quickly flip over to the toys if I were caught in a bit of wishful reverie.

Later on, Sears Auto Center became my go-to place for tires, batteries, and simple car repairs. My Sears charge card was the first consumer credit I had (in college, maybe in high school on the basis of my fast food job) and it was a little financial relief valve for bald tires, dead batteries, sketchy brakes on the junkers (an AMC Hornet, a Dodge Colt Vista) I drove back then, on a part-time, fast food income. I have clear memories of the Sears Auto Center waiting areas at the Natick Mall (MA), the Waterbury Mall (CT), and Corbins Corner (West Hartford).

When I got out of college and into my first apartment and first job, my Sears charge card bought a "Free Spirit" 10 speed bike, a Kenmore vacuum cleaner (which I finally let go in 2013, 30 years after I bought it). Probably some home electronics as well. It was the place to go for good old American value in the days before big box retailers and online shopping. Not the cheapest. But solid, reliable.

When I bought my first home, a 1930's cape in Waterbury with a lot of projects, Craftsman power tools and hand tools began to fill the basement, a Craftsman lawn mower cut the grass, and Sears tools to tend the garden, trim the hedges, water the lawn. I suspect a Kenmore washer and dryer were in the basement, although I'm not 100% sure on that one. I recall being thrilled when the first Home Depot opened in the area, and again when it came to Waterbury itself. And I spend a lot of time at Lowe's these days. But back then - it was invariably Sears and Craftsman. In fact, as I type this, there are two Craftsman tool boxes within eye shot, in nearly mint condition 30+ years later, and I could quickly dig out a Craftsman drill, a few power saws, a heat gun, and a full set of ratchets and wrenches.

Sears became a habit for other things. Eyeglasses, long before Lens Crafters. Basic clothes - Levi's and underwear and socks. Shoes (they hooked up with Lands End at some point). I've never been much of a clothes horse but even I knew that Sears was kind of stodgy and unfashionable; still I'd pick things up there now and then.

I closed charge account more than a decade ago; I think the last thing I bought from them was a Die-hard car battery for my old Saturn. It's been years since I've done any serious shopping there (or gone to a mall, for that matter).

I've seen a lot of retail come and go over the years - from Mailman's and Hill's department stores in York PA, to Bradlee's and Caldor's and Zayre when we moved to Massachusetts. Montgomery Ward. G Fox. Sage Allen. All gone. JC Penney (still with us). In some ways I am a child of retail - after a few years cutting his teeth at Univac, Dad spent his working life in the IT departments of McCrory (York, PA) and Zayre (Framingham, MA)

But something about Sears Roebuck and Co, and the brands associated with the company, sticks with me. I'm at an age where I am starting to lose things - parents, friends, celebrities, brands, stores. Although my changing shopping habits are probably part of the reason it's slowly dying, I shall be sorry to see Sears go....

January 24, 2017

Private vs. Public Education

We're, by and large, Catholic school kids in my my family. I put in 12 years (grade school and high school), my sister did an 11 year sentence (8th grade in public school as the family moved to CT). My brothers less so - one had a single year (1st grade) until a sharp nun diagnosed dyslexia and suggested a better resourced public school, and one got public school grade school and four years of Catholic high school. And we definitely had a Catholic school bias; as a smart, soft, bullied kid, I appreciated the Catholic school discipline that was no doubt abetted by the threat of expulsion; public schools (our mythology went) had to keep trouble-makers, making the school less safe for a kid like me.

Early on, I realized my father was playing a little fast and loose with the tax laws. He realized that our catholic school tuition payment checks were coming back endorsed by the Archdiocese of Harrisburg, so he started making them out to the same.  And since those checks were indistinguishable from those he put in the offertory envelope, he took those payments as a charitable deduction on his taxes.

Kinda sketchy from a tax law standpoint, yes. But his logical argument in favor had some merit - he was paying for public school tuition through his taxes; and we were not using that resource, so he'd at least get a bit of tax relief from that. Dad was the kinda guy who would discuss such legal / ethical issues with me, which was kind of cool.

So thinking about Trump's education secretary, I kind of see the side of the argument that private schools could perhaps be subsidized or in some way given tax relief. Every child not in the public school system provides less of a drain on public resources; parents who make those choices should get some sort of relief.  I'm not a fan of any of Trump's nominees but I definitely see the draw of that sort of opinion.

Yes, there are HUGE ramifications in terms of the haves and have-nots, in terms of privilege, race, class, wealth. Mom and Dad were not wealthy, but they valued education and put us kids first. Not every parent has those priorities or the tools to make that happen. And yeah, as the public school system suffers a brain and wealth drain of kids going to private sector schools, the whole system suffers but especially poor / urban towns and cities.  

I do not have kids, so the reality is *I* am paying to educate all of your little rug rats. And I definitely get that educated kids with opportunities and a future benefit all of us. And I have many friends with kids with special needs that are dependent on public education.

No good answers here. Unfortunately, so much hinges on parents that are functional, educated, have resources, and prioritize their kids education. As someone whose parents had all that, we benefited. Many kids, through no fault of their own, have less effective parents. 

January 21, 2017

Lamination Nation

If I were a super-hero and had a super-hero "powers" listing, one would have to put "Laminating" near the top of that list. I'm kind of a laminating fiend.

It started with my folk festival; when I took over the performer merchandise back in 2007; I started to laminate the festival schedule for the merch tent tables. The nature of Falcon Ridge is that any paper left out overnight become dew sodden and damp; laminating the schedules mean they stay fresh and useful throughout the fest; taped down to tables throughout the tent. I would also laminate signs for yoga classes (posted at the festival entrance).

In 2010, I got drawn into the yoga studio teacher training program. It took me a few years to feel comfortable making suggestions / changes; it also took a few years for my name to appear anywhere in the literature or digital marketing, so it felt a little like probationary period. But in 2013, I realized that a document with all the teacher trainees smiling mug shots would be useful for the staff. It's a big group (35 - 45 trainees) and skewed a bit towards younger, female, and healthy, so there's a lot of folks who kind of look alike. So having a photographic class roster really helps us to get to know the trainees sooner.

Yesterday, as the trainees showed up and signed in, I grabbed a quick photo (sort of like a passport or photo booth; not the best pictures to be sure) and this morning, I cropped and imported into a document that has been reused each year. It's kind of a "final nail in the coffin" for the Class of 2016 (who are now alumni) and an official recognition of the Class of 2017.  Sent them off to Fedex Office (nee Kinko's) to be printed, picked them up, and laminated them just now.

Looking back, I've got a similar document for the past five years - 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2017. I ought to print those out someday and make a poster. All the lives that this training has touched.  Our legacy as a studio. And my legacy for whatever I've contributed.

January 17, 2017

Two Bibles and a Birthday Card

As we sifted through the small pile of personnel effects from mom's assisted living apartment, we found a box of mom's treasures. Each of got a small priority mail box last week; of things in mom's memory box that pertained to us. I jokingly called it a crying box this weekend; because opening the box and going through it elicited many tears.

In my box, a handful of cards that mom had saved; a few pictures, an envelope full of colorful Indonesian money. I must have given mom the remnants from a business trip to look at, and she had saved it.

I was particularly moved by a birthday card I had given her in 1991; long before mom's illness began to take her down, long before she knew of my gender issues, in the middle period when I was starting to deal with my big life project via therapy. I knew gender was an issue - but had not yet started to deal with it.

An odd card for a 30 year old (then) son to give to a mother. An odd card for a mother to decide to save.

Also in the Jude pile, a large print edition of the New American Bible that I had apparently gifted mom in 2001.  No doubt it was on her list; for many years we'd pass around lists in the weeks before Christmas to facilitate appropriate gifting.

I actually have a New American Bible, procured somewhere along the line. As a Catholic high school student, we studied the bible at least one of our four years; I have vague memory of a different bible that got beat up quite a bit (name written on the fore edge, highlighting, notes in the margins, ragged cover through use and rough transit). I think I picked my present copy up during a retreat as a young adult; it's in pretty good shape. I actually had it out recently (looking for appropriate readings for mom's service, before we knew we were restricted to a handful of readings).

Also strange for someone like me to have two Bibles. I'm pretty avowedly non-Christian - not because I strongly disagree with the teachings and beliefs, but because:
  • In this country it's such a dominant faith
  • It's invariably seen as exclusive and it leaves out so many non-Christians
  • If / when faith-based judgement and hate comes my way it's invariably Christian rooted. 
  • I've read up on the apocrypha sufficiently to realize that what has come down as canon is not the sum total of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth; and perhaps not even the best part of those teachings 
I am a spiritual person; and while I strongly identify as a former or recovering Catholic, I no longer consider myself a Christian. And now I have two bibles....strange.

Long Lost

Found in a photo box of mom's photos:

That's my father, William J. Russell, and me, circa 1961. We shared the planet for 18 years; but as far as I know, this is the only photo I've seen of the two of us together. And a photo I never knew existed until today.

In the midst of mourning, small shards of joy....

January 08, 2017

Agnes Russell Memorial Slideshow

Put this together to show at mom's memorial luncheon - sped up the transitions for YouTube...

Eulogy for Agnes Russell

As I began to contemplate mom’s life, the first lines to a poem by Mary Oliver kept coming to me:
I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
And it struck me that mom has had more than her share of disappointment and sorrow in her 80 years.

As a young woman, fresh from nursing school and with a job and income of her own, she excitedly purchased Christmas gifts for her friends and large family.  She was heartbroken when her gifts were stolen from her car. Some folks would let something like this harden them, embitter them - yet for mom, Christmas remained her biggest joy. Regardless of our family finances or situation, Christmas was always a time for church, for family, for effusive gifting. Each December 26th I’d get a call from mom, reflecting “what a nice Christmas we had”. Mom collected angels, religious figures, and Santa Claus figurines – her home was filled with them each December. In the words of Charles Dickens, she “kept Christmas well”.

I added this extemporaneously: And looking around this church, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season, I have to believe that this is exactly how mom would want her funeral to look. Well played, mom!

In the mid-70s, our father Bill lost his job in York, PA; and after a few lean years, found work in Framingham, MA. It was with deep sorrow that mom left her friends and family in Pennsylvania for an unfamiliar New England. She made a life here, yet her heart remained rooted in Pennsylvania. Never one to spend lavishly, she purchased beautiful Amish inspired artwork for her home which brought her much comfort. And she has stayed in close touch with her family through these many years.

In 1979, her husband died. As we each aged into our 40s, we reflected on how painful and difficult it must have been for our young mother, newly widowed and raising four children alone without nearby family or old friends. She had to quickly learn how to run the household, manage money, re-enter the workplace, and take on both parental roles. She got all four of us through college, and only one of us has been arrested. (point to self)

After dad died, she could have packed up her brood and moved back to Pennsylvania to be closer to her family and old friends. But she knew that we had established lives in Massachusetts, that we had been uprooted once already, that it would be best for us kids in many ways to stay where we were. So she stayed put; sacrificing her own needs for ours, maintaining the family home until we were fledged, then moving into a condo in Framingham where she lived until recently. Mom’s residence, wherever it was, remained the place that we gathered together, the place we called home.

I know that she struggled deeply, being a single woman in a world that revolved around marriage and couples. Over time, she gathered a circle of beloved women friends, and each time a friend became widowed or single, took that person under her wing.

And finally, when her health began to fail, and took her into retirement in the mid 90s, it would have been easy to drop into sadness, into infirmity, into victimhood. But mom drew upon her nursing skills and began to manage her heath, without complaint. When her health issues began to overwhelm her at the start of 2016, she finally (and reluctantly) allowed us to help her. “Now we’re all on the same page” she said at the time, and we began to realize the cross that mom had been carrying quietly and bravely over many decades.

I know it’s a strange remembrance, this litany of disappointments, of struggle. Mary Oliver’s poem goes on to describe a life lived in bitterness.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
But that is not the life that Agnes Russell led. Though life often dealt her sorrow, she was forever looking on the bright side. That optimism was perhaps best expressed by her love of games – bridge, bingo, scratch tickets, not to mention occasional trips to the casino with her friend June, first to visit “The Donald” in Atlantic City, and later the casinos in Connecticut.  She loved to make things – quilting, knitting, crafts, cooking & baking – often for a worthy cause or for those less fortunate.

She was, first and foremost, a mother. If she had a fault, it was in loving us too deeply; in not wanting us to be hurt. We have each had to learn how to take risks; that to fully live and to fully love we must take chances, must risk being hurt. But as we made our way through the world, we did so with the confidence that mom was there to catch us and to comfort us if we were to fall.

Her favorite day of the year was Mother’s Day, when the Birthright folks would pass out carnations at church, and she always took an extra one for our brother Tom’s birth mother. Of all of us, his connection to mom has always been something very special – mother and child, yes, but also very deep and sacred friends.

The four of us shared a little “inside humor” about mom - if one of us was going through a hard time – work, relationship, money, life – we knew that child would become #1 on mom’s worry list; and the others would breathe a sigh of relief for having dropped down to 2nd, 3rd or 4th on the list. We’ve each spent some time in the #1 spot over the years.

She took keen interest in our lives – in childhood surely but also as we moved to adulthood. And that interest extended to her grandchildren – she was a grandmother who showed up for every concert, play, sporting event, graduation, and birthday. And her large heart and interest extended to the friends and classmates of each of us, as well as her grandchildren – she was everybody’s mother, everybody’s grandmother. We’ve only managed to get her four grandkids, but she had room in her heart for 40. Kevin’s young son Griffin has been the apple of her eye the last years of her life. It was so lovely to see her mothering emerge even in the midst of her illness.

Kathy’s kids – Joe, Sara, and Sean – have a funny “Nana” story. She was attending a play at Sara’s school, and at intermission went to the refreshment table where the kids were selling cookies and cupcakes. Mom had a hankering for a bagel and asked if they had any. She was forever after “Nana Bagel” in the Quirk household, and she laughed along with the joke.

And she was always looking out for the underdog – taking special time and energy with nieces, nephews, and friends who perhaps had a harder time, making a point to stay connected to relatives that had moved away from Pennsylvania. When she gave up driving, it was not her own independence that she mourned, but concern for her friends who she had been driving to events, shopping, church, and errands all these years. And to the very end of her life she was knitting blankets for newborns, concerned about the other residents at her assisted living facility, concerned that she was taking up too much of our time.

Mom has taken to reading Mother Teresa’s book in the past few years; it was always by her bedside, and she was so thrilled to see Teresa canonized this past year. So I’ll close this morning with a quote from St. Teresa of Calcutta
“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones - the ones at home.”
Love us and take care of us, mom, you most certainly did. And we so very much love you, miss you, and are grateful to have been your children.