Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not gone

A) It's getting to be time for a visit to the optometrist. Now that I spend part or all of four days a week staring alternately at a computer screen and very fine print (some of you perhaps know and probably hate the Red Book) my eyes complain bitterly if I do anything of the sort after work.

B) I'm taking solace in being a sorta-kinda Thanksgiving traditionalist, at least where stuff under this roof is concerned. This prevents me from having an inferiority attack after reading some of the Thanksgiving fare readers have served. You (or y'all, as the case may be) may feel free to post your menus here: I can take it.

As usual, I went out with the in-laws for Thanksgiving day. They have a saying in that family. "There are two kinds of people in the world: Martha Stewart, and not exactly. We're not exactly." We go to the York Harbor Inn in Maine which puts on a buffet, a splendid mix of gourmet and traditional fare. Features included turkey, white and dark, prime rib, lobster newburg, baked haddock filet, bread and sausage stuffing, oyster stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, orzo with asiago sauce, baked butternut squash with walnuts, baked glazed yams, spinach casserole, several salads, and a decadent dessert table.

Even in this house, that doesn't happen. Cooking for two in a small house is constraining. Still, we have a post-Thanksgiving feast over the weekend. Fare this year was a half turkey, sage rubbed, cornbread stuffing supercharged with chopped red onion and extra celery, swedes (aka rutabaga) mashed with Greek yogurt, my wife's favourite peas and onions. I would love to have seen this turkey alive. The half had an enormous leg and thigh, an equally gigantic wing, and a relatively modest breast and ribcage. Nevertheless it roasted well.

Dessert was a single small pumpkin pie. After York Harbor's offerings (pumpkin pie, Maine wild blueberry pie, flourless chocolate cake, Indian pudding and a few other dainties) it seemed prudent not to go overboard with dessert.

The question before the house is what to do for December 25. For the first time in five years, my clinician daughter got the short straw and will either be on duty or on call until New Years, so that is when the family is getting together. Because of family gatherings, we've already done several Jewish christmases (Chinese food and a movie), and we're exploring alternatives, especially those that don't involve overeating.

Thanks? Well, good friends, a roof over our heads and food to eat. In addition, it was the second Thanksgiving in a row that the Beast didn't come to call. This allows me to have dinner without an embarrassing scene, and to join in the traditional post-prandial walk along Maine beaches.
We count only the gifts we have received, and look no further.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Good ideas take time

We return to hysterical Concord and that portion of the Bay Circuit Trail that crosses it.

My early disclaimer is that I really like the Bay Circuit idea. I hope that the missing pieces will be fit into the puzzle in my lifetime, preferably whilst I am still capable of locomotion. I say that now because the following might otherwise seem abrasive.

The overall concept looks like this (go here to see it in better resolution):

The green lines are portions that have been gathered into the fold: note that I don't say "complete." Some are temporary links. Many portions are, as mountain bikers like to say, "technical," which means "leave your skinny tyres at home." Other parts are on busy, busy roads, which is hard to avoid in a place like Massachusetts. A couple of sections appear to run through neighbourhoods where the signs should be subtitled "don't pedal faster: they're not shooting at you." Still others, viewed close up, resemble Bil Keane's famous dotted line strips in The Family Circus comic. For example, consider the upper left of the following:

Still, what was only an idea a few years ago has made remarkable progress in acquisition and layout. What it could use now are some more signs. You'll observe the Bay Circuit logo in the graphics above. At present, that's what you look for to guide you along the trail, and not much bigger, either. The signs are about four by four inches. Lacking directional arrows, they serve only to tell you that you're still on the trail (as if, in places like Concord, irate neighbours letting the dogs out wouldn't let you know you'd strayed), but they're sparse and hard to spot.

We went from A to B on the map above, about a 4 1/2 mile round trip. Only trouble with B is that we left the trail to get there, going a block (and a bridge) too far. On the return we found a 6 by 9 inch directional sign, subtle in both colour (brown) and content, sort of marking the turn. It was hard to see on foot: I can hardly imagine seeing it from a bike. At this stage in the trail's development, one needs the trail maps, narrative directions, a good set of topographical maps, and a compass as well. Things are not as clear as they might seem, or it wouldn't be adventure.

It's easy to be critical of details like this—and they are details. A good trail, like a good meal, takes time to prepare. It also takes money for things like signs, and it takes boots on the ground, volunteers to hang the signs and see that they make sense to trail users. I don't think the Bay Circuit Trail is rolling in either. So, having poked a bit of fun at the undertaking, I'll say that if I'm spared and actually have a retirement, volunteering for the Bay Circuit Trail is on my list.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

If you don't know, you don't deserve to know

During our recent kayak trips on the Concord River, we decided we should get to know the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge from the land side. The first motivation was practical. The map showed that it had a rest room, and kayakers generally find it useful to know where all the available facilities are. The second motivation was just to see the place. It is well-marked along the water, and a couple of kayak/canoe landings are available for the curious.

We did a little homework. The first returns were discouraging, suggesting only 1.5 miles of trails. I prodded a little further and found that the current trail distance is nearer three miles, including side trails. In addition, a portion of the Bay Circuit Trail is immediately next the Refuge parking lot, which allowed us to run the outing up to six miles or so.

Not familiar with the Bay Circuit? You should be. This is a relatively young and ambitious idea, whose purpose is to run a much larger emerald necklace around greater Boston, linking existing conservation lands, local, state and national parks, walkways, bike trails and right-of-way easements. The goal is an off-road foot and bicycle route from Plum Island in the north to Plymouth Bay in the south. The idea has some rough edges, as I'll show in a later comment.

Back to Great Meadows NWR. In a foolish moment, I left the GPS at home. The maps were clear, right? It's federal property, right? It'll be as easy to find as any other Concord, MA landmark, right?


There are a few towns in Massachusetts with worse cases of galloping honkyism than my place of residence: not many, I grant you, but a few. Concord has to be among them. We cruised west on route 62, reasoning that we would find the NWR sign before we reached the centre of town. Nothing. Not a whiff, not a hint. After trying Monument Street (no luck), we returned. Whilst cruising around Concord's traffic oval (that's what it is), my spouse spotted an NWR sign just too late to make the turn. Around the oval again; now we followed the sign, reasoning that we had somehow missed the sign at the entrance.

When we recrossed the Bedford town line, it was clear we had not. It was about time to do either the reasonable (dig the detail maps out of the backpack) or the unthinkable (ask for directions).

When I pulled over at a farm stand to get at the maps, my wife hopped out to ask for directions. (I just want it clear who was responsible for that.) Well, bless the old gentleman in the farm stand. He hopped in his truck and said "follow me." Which we did, about half a mile back toward Concord. Here, we turned right onto a completely undistinguished suburban street, where there was no sign for the refuge. Our guide signalled with his hands and brake lights when we reached the entrance near the end of this road, marked with a small brown sign. It is very narrow, hardly more than a car width. You can tell how much the neighbours love having a National Wildlife Refuge next door by the massive stockade fences that flank the entrance.

So, just to flip the finger at the white bread of Concord, here are directions for those of you who, like me, think public property should be publicly accessible.

From Concord centre:
  1. Starting on Lexington Road (Rte 2A) go < 0.1 mi to Monument Square.
  2. Continue on Monument Square (RT-62 E).
  3. Turn right on Bedford Street (RT-62 E); go 1.3 mi.
  4. Turn left on Monsen Road - go 0.2 mi. The road bears sharply right.
  5. Arrive at 185 Monsen Road, on the left, between the stockade fences.
From Bedford, MA:
  1. take Rte 4-225 from Rte 128 through Bedford Center.
  2. Bear left on Rte 62 W (Concord Road); go 2.2 mi.
  3. Continue on Rte 62 W another 0.7 mi.
  4. Turn right on Monsen Road - go 0.2 mi. The road bears sharply right.
  5. Arrive at 185 Monsen Road, on the left, between the stockade fences.
Coordinates for GPS types.

The turn from Route 62 onto Monsen Road:
42 deg 28 min 9.9 sec North
71 deg 19 min 36 sec West

Entrance to Great Meadows NWR:
42 deg 28 min 26.95 sec North
71 deg 19 min 38.87 sec West

I trust you do not drive an urban assault vehicle, because if you do, you'll find the entrance a very tight squeeze. The parking lot is, um, intimate. That alone should be enough to settle the residents of Concord who appear to be afraid that the street and the refuge will be overrun by the masses.

Is it worth it? Well, we had hardly shut the car doors when we saw a red-tail hawk take a mouse within ten feet of the parking lot, then perch on a handy limb to eat it. November is certainly late in the year for bird life, but the ducks and geese were unconcerned about that. Much else visible, but no ravening hordes. Oh yes: it's half a mile from the kayak landing to the rest rooms. The National Historic Park is a better bet. And we stopped at the farm stand for apples and vegetables on the way out of town.

I've run on, so Bay Circuit later.

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Concerning street trees

When we first moved to the neighbourhood, thirty-something years ago, our street and several others were graced with a dozen or so silver maples. They had reached enormous size for their species, 10 to 14 feet in girth and 50-75 feet tall. They were also near the end of their allotted span.

One by one they have come down, felled by storms or by the town when decay caught up with them. The last two stood down the block at the corner of the Avenue. A month ago today, in a fierce microburst, the Avenue tree fell, blocking the street for hours.

Photo: Katie Curley-Katzman,

This was the death sentence for the tree around the corner. After removing the obvious obstruction, above, the Tree Department moved with (for them) unusual haste to grind the tree's stump and roots and remove all trace of it. Inevitably their attention turned to the last silver maple right around the corner. This was the largest and widest of them all. Despite obvious signs of decay, it was still standing and providing habitat for squirrels and raccoons.

The Tree Department got to work on the last tree inside of a week. At first, it looked as if they were just going to take out the deadwood, but in a day or two it was clear the tree was coming down. It did. However, once it was down our crack team of woodsmen reverted to form. The stump is still there.

It has 100 growth rings up to the rot cavity visible in the middle. Making allowance for that, the tree was 110 to 115 years old. Another large maple once stood a few feet down the street, coming down in a storm in the late 1990s. I examined that stump and found it was then around 100.

This brought me to a milestone. Our neighbourhood was first subdivided in 1881. A second subdivision followed in 1893, and a third in 1897. It seems likely that all the maples dated from the era of the third subdivision, when the property owners had visions of the area as a summer colony: a vision that was never realised.

Silver maples have few human friends. Naturalist John Kieran wrote that they are the weak sister among maples. The link above shares Kieran's scorn. Tree departments don't like them (as we found when we tried to have one planted) because of their habit of dropping limbs on streets, and because their shallow root systems raise hell with street and sidewalk pavements.

Some years back, our town's tree department was run by an old-school tree hugger, who was probably the reason some of our maples lasted as long as they did. He resisted any call to take a tree down merely for the convenience of abuttors. When it was necessary to prune trees around power lines, the job was a work of art, not the bizarre topiary one sees in some towns. He preferred native trees, at least in the older neighbourhoods. He replaced one of the maples lost on our street with an ash, a couple of others with basswoods, and kept the Norway maples at a minimum. Now, unless the abuttor makes a request, a tree that falls gets no replacement at all. Replacements are Norway maples as a rule, which my native-species spouse considers a vertical form of kudzu.

Unfortunately, abuttors around here have become the principal pest of street trees. Under the new regime, new homeowners down the street had a tree taken down because it was too close to their driveway. It seems likely that the owners of the house on the corner, abutting both of the last silver maples, were complicit in the rapid removal of the fallen tree's roots, and the sudden demise of the second.

Maybe colonising Mars isn't such a nutty idea. Difficult as it seems, it does appear easier than developing a human culture prepared to take responsibility for its actions.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Miss me?

Yeah right.

I have a number of items in the inbox, but sometimes a story comes along that necessarily cuts into line. In this case, it's the Mount Washington Hotel's threatened lawsuits against anyone else in the vicinity who uses the words "Mount Washington" for anything but the hotel.

What lawyer whispered this idea into the ears of the hotel's management? One with dreams of endless litigation, I have no doubt. That might fly, except for one difficult detail. The hotel was named after the mountain, not the other way round. Granted that the mountain got its present name a scant century before the hotel set up in business (succeeding other hotels on the property with fewer rooms and fewer pretensions). The mountain (formerly known as Agiocochook) has nonetheless been doing business for ten or twelve thousand years, and has intellectual property rights to any name it's called that are superior to those of a hotel with a white paint job and a white bread attitude.

People in the Mount W********* Valley are understandably proud of their massive, vile-tempered mountain, where snow can fall any month of the year, where a summer breeze may top 100 mph, and where over 120 people have died because they didn't take seriously the threat posed by a mountain of only 6288 feet. Apparently some residents express their pride by putting "Mount W*********" on their businesses, or their pickups, or whatever. A good number of these people probably can't afford coffee at the Mount Washington Hotel, let alone a weekend's accommodations there. Perhaps that's what bothers the management: that such rednecks can use the mountain's name just like the Elect.

There's the old saying that no publicity is bad publicity, but I think there's an exception for business decisions bordering on psychosis.

Down in Maine there is a modest cottage industry in topless coffee shops. If I were living up in the Mount W********* Valley, I'd start up a Mount Washington Topless Coffee Shop, just to see the blood pressure rise. Along with the (ahem) view, I'd be sure to serve a cup of good joe that ordinary mortals could afford.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Those random Wabac machine moments

I just blew by one of those hand-wringing stories that Yahoo news does so well, about the evils of taking money out of your 401k too early. Presumably, the evils apply only if you still have money in your 401k.

This reminded me, somehow, of a bank radio ad hereabouts from about 1980 or so, in which the disclaimer tail briefly got to wag the advertising dog, thanks to a few misplaced words. This disclaimer was the sort that warned you that if you cashed in your CD early, your earnings went south.

There is a right way and a wrong way to get this message across. The wrong way (the one used) was "premature withdrawal results in the forfeiture of all interest." Believe it or not, things like this could go viral even before the Internet. The morning this subtle message appeared on Boston radio, I arrived at work to find my (mostly female) employees almost insensible with laughter over the message. The women were eager to confirm to the men that the message was true. It also disappeared very quickly, replaced in a day or so by something in more sedate banker prose. Knowing the industry a little, I suspect that the other disappearances were among the copywriters, who at least exited laughing.