August 25, 2008

odds and ends

I have been more than a little neglectful of this blog lately. As the August is turning to September the pace of things has been picking up both at home and at work. As far as work goes, my big goal for the summer was to get the theatre recarpeted. That was accomplished last week. After jumping thru all the hoops of the university bureaucracy, the actually work only took three days. The new carpet looks fine; it is darker color than the original, which I hope, will not show stains like the older lighter carpet. Woes betide they who spill the first soda or cup of coffee on the carpet. Supposedly no food or beverages are allowed in the theatre, this is not really a problem for events in the space but it is used as a classroom during the daytime and the students ignore pretty much all the rules. And it is my experience that most of them don’t seem to care, given the amount of empty cans, bottles and food wrappers left after a class.

One final work project is to refocus many of the stage lights and replace the color in them before the beginning of term. The lights get bumped and moved the course of the year, and the gel coloring the lights begins to fade over time, so at least once a
year the lights need to be checked and maintained. It is a slow job, each light needs to be turned on, checked, focused and recolored and then compared to any lights that it is working with as a group. It means a lot of ladder work, or in the case of the front coves, crawling along a metal catwalk. The latter part I really enjoy, NOT! I dragged the boy into work with me to help out one day last week, (His summer program finished a week or so ago and he doesn’t start back to school ‘til Sept 9!) I positioned him on the floor with the remote control unit for the dimmers and had him turn the lights on while I did the physical labor. It worked out pretty well, he got the hang of the remote quickly and with his help it cut a couple hours of the job that day.

Keeping him busy when both his mother and I work is tricky. Beside the me keeping him busy at my work, his mother has also brought him with her on a few days. She has had him stuffing envelopes for a mailing that she is sending out, and on another day they needed some kids to be models for a local ad campaign they are doing so he was up for that. Who knows his picture may be all over in New England publications in a month or two.

We have been invaded by Guitar Hero. This is another reason the get the boy out of the house for hours at a time. He had wanted the game for sometime, but we had resisted. While visiting Seattle he had the opportunity to play the game with his cousins, which only increased his desire for the game. Upon our return to Boston the entreaties increased, so we told him that if he wanted it, he had to buy it himself. And that he did. He had a little money saved from different sources and by saving his allowance for a couple of weeks he had enough cash to make the purchase. Off to Best buy and then back home again to marathon of hard rock hits of the 70’s through today. He took to the game almost instantly. The little bit of playing he did is Seattle gave him the basics, but his actually guitar playing gave him the dexterity he needed. Within a day or two he had pretty much mastered the ‘medium’ level of the game, having bypassed the ‘easy’ level as being just that, too easy. Part of the fun of the game is to hit enough consecutive ‘notes’ too activate ones ‘star power’. This is a bonus phase where one has to use all you rock and roll moves to get extra point and earn larger bonuses. The object of the game is to play each song well enough get earn money to purchase new songs to play, add additional character and buy different guitars. It is fun to watch him play. If only he would put as much time and effort into his real guitar playing. But isn’t that the lament of every parent? One small consolation in all of this is that his preferred songs all tend to be good solid rock classics, and not too many head bangers from the 70’s, and now he wants to learn a few of the songs for real. I will admit to trying the game for a few minutes, only to find that I really suck at it. I think I need to spend some time in ‘practice mode’ while no one else is around.

As the summer winds down, one of the things I will miss is the gathering in the ‘triangle’ across the street from our house. The triangle in a vacant lot the neighborhood has been tending as a green space for the last 25 years or so. We make a point of gathering at least once a week for a potluck barbeque. There are a couple of stalwarts who come every week, we being one of them, and then some who just stop in occasionally for a little food and a few laughs. We are a diverse bunch, professionals, artists, stay at home moms, and retired; you name it. We gather, we cook, we eat, we drink a bit and on Sunday nights try to drown out the services at the adjacent Baptist church with out laughter. I think it is unusual these days for people to get together with their neighbors on a regular basis like this. It really makes a community out of our little street.

Miss Carol gives the boy a pointer on a karate move.

August 16, 2008

Family Camping: The Saga

This is a long one, fill your coffee cup or refresh your drink before starting.

Meanwhile back at the family vacation …

I have been a camper all my life. I remember going camping with my family when I was very young, and we continued to go on family camping trips at least once a year for as long until the time. I moved out of the house n my youth I was in Boy Scouts, where we camped frequently and sometimes very miserably, but that is a story for anothertime. Even after al of that that I continued to hike and camp well into my 20’s. I don’t do much of it these days, but I still enjoy it.

I am not sure how my parents did it back in the 50’s and early 60’s. We would often head out for a week at the ocean, or somewhere in the mountains or to the eastern side of Washington State. There were 8 of us kids plus equipment all crammed into and on top of our 1956 Chevy Station wagon. It was before the days of seat belts, and we would be stacked like cordwood in and about the seats and contents of the car. It always seemed like we drove for days to get to campground, but I am sure it wasn’t more that 4 or 5 hours at most. It was also before the days of nylon tents and lightweight camping gear. I remember our tent being this monstrous (remember it had to sleep 2 adults and 8 children) smelly canvas umbrella tent that weighed 50 lbs and was a chore to put up. The cooler was had a steel outer shell with an aluminum interior. There was also the plywood camping box that my grandfather built, that was full of drawers and cubbies for holding al t he dishes and other cooking utensils. Cooking was done on a 2-burner white gas Colman stove that you had to make sure you kept the tank pumped up or it would go out.

Example of an early mid-period umbrella tent.

To this day I cannot imagine going camping with 8 kids and cooking over a camping stove for a week. It’s not like tending to that many kids is a picnic to begin with. But to drag them all out in the woods with the dirt and the bugs and the rain seems like madness in retrospect. But we loved it and we did it year after year. What is more we often camped with our aunts and uncles and their families of 8 kids all in adjacent campsites.

It was a blast.

So that brings me to the present day. Obviously the family group outings made an impression on me, as it did on of the rest of my siblings, many of whom are still camping fools, and I mean that in the most affectionate way. A couple of them have camping trainers, but more than one still prefer tents, and they are known to go camping pretty much any time of the year from April to October.

So it is that every summer we all try to get together for one big camping trip reminiscent of those ones many years ago. With the exception of one sister who doesn’t join in for her own reasons, we all gather in late July for the ‘Camping Trip’. We come in From Boston and one sister and her family travels from the Bay area in California. There are now 4 generations that go if you include my brother’s 2 year-old granddaughters, all told it is around 30 people and numerous pets.

The biggest difficulty is choosing the location. Normally we try to go one of Washington States wonderful state parks, but they are so popular that one has to make reservations several months ahead. And trying to get 6 or 8 adjacent sites is difficult if not impossible, and this past year we just weren’t able to organize it in time it so we punted and decided to stay at a KOA campground that the family was familiar with. It was a nice campground but is geared more towards the motorhome / trailer set. Many of then seem to be retired folk who spend a portion of the year on the road with their big rigs. During our 4-day stay I saw more than one paint-to-match trailer and truck combo, as well as a couple that were actually bus bodies built as motor homes. With all the pop-outs and pop-ups, I think the actually floor space on some of these rigs may be more than that of my house. That hardly seems like camping, and many of the people seldom leave the confines of their vehicles. Did I mention the satellite disk farm at one end of the campground where they could all get an unobstructed view of the southern sky? That ain’t roughing it to me.

Searching for a signal

On the other hand the campground had a swimming pool, a miniature golf course, and other things to keep kids occupied. In addition they also had a handful of cabins, which my mother, sister and her daughter stay in. mother enjoys the experience, but at age 80 she doesn’t feel the need to sleep in a tent on an air mattress. My sister’s daughter is disabled, and it is much easier for her to forgo the tent and sleeping bag thing as well. But the best feature of this location is that all of all the campsites in our area were situated so that we had a common area between us. That is perfect for group gatherings and easy access to others campsites.

So what do we do when we go camping? Mostly we hang around with one another, browse and graze the food from the other campsites and let the kids run wild. At the same time we try to find things to do such as outings to some local towns or historic/interesting locals. Of course there is always mundane things like hikes and swimming.

This year it just so happened that it was the summer festival in the nearby town of Concrete, and there was a ‘fly-in’ at the local airfield the same weekend. Concrete, founded in the early 20th century it was a nearby lime quarry that gave it it’s name and its leading industry. The cement plants are long gone, but the town manages to survive on supplying local farmers and vacationers. Several cars full of us trundled off down the highway to the event. The main street of town was lined with a few dozen booths hawking everything from food to ‘antiques’ and local crafts. At one ‘antiques’ booth Mrs. purchased a handful of old jewelry that she thought she could take apart and reuse the bead. The boy also talked us into buying him an old Argus camera. While my wife was looking over some skeins of bead for sale at another craftsperson’s booth, my mother, gregarious to a fault wandered by and struck up a conversation with the woman running the booth. Within a few minutes it was established that the woman was in fact the daughter of some long lost friends of my mothers. A short and happy reunion ensured, telephone numbers and email address exchanged and in the process the woman gave my wife a great deal on beads that she had been looking at. We later joked that this happens all the time when we go out with mother, she knows everyone, and remembers everything is always finding some shirttail cousin or long lost acquaintances. A couple of years ago on similar trip in the small town of Roslyn Washington while wandering through a local antique store, conversations with the proprietress established that that the woman was a close high school friend of her younger sister. It has to be a gift.

Exhausted from that experience, some of us decided to head across the highways to the airfield to check out the ‘Old-Fashioned fly-in’. It was better attended than the street fair, and had a lot more participants. The airport is a public airfield with a dozen or more hangers lining the airstrip. This was obvious the big event of the summer, the hangers we open to the public and many were filled with older cars and planes, almost all restored and in beautiful condition.The airstrip itself was lined with well over 100 small aircraft of varying ages several of them dating to before WWII. As we ambled along admiring the planes we were treated to regular take-offs and landings as well as the occasional buzzing by pilots doing a flyby on the airstrip just feet away from us. The younger kids in the bunch quickly grew tired of the airplanes, for them the big hit was the mini donut booth that sold them by the sack full. A sister-in-law who will remain nameless purchased enough I thing to feed the whole campground.

Just by chance our son has a female cousin just 6 weeks on either side of him in age. (There must have been something in the air that autumn 13 years ago.) The two girls live within a few miles of one another, and see each other all the time. The boy of course lives 2800 miles away on the other side of the country. In past years, during our visit the three have run together like pack animals. We were a little concerned that with them turning 13 and with that little stage called puberty hitting them all pretty hard, that the old childhood bonds might have come unraveled. We should not have worried; it was like they had never parted. They were still thick like thieves, and were inseparable with the exception of the times that the two girls would start swooning over the Jonas Brothers. It was just too much for the boy, and he would wander off by himself at those times

I am no sure whose idea it was, but someone suggested that they be allowed to share a tent together one night on the camping trip. Surprising as it may seem, it got general approval among the relative parents. We set up a spare tent in the open space between all the campsites, and brother Pete cleverly concealed a walkie-talkie on the outside of the tent. This was a wise choice as the kids chattered and giggled well into the night, sometimes loud enough for all to hear. When the giggle-chatter got to be too much, Pete would key in the radio tell them all to quiet down. It worked like a charm, but I don’t think any of them got to sleep before 1am. This is not the start of a tradition of letting them all sleep together in the same tent for one night from now on, believe me. Three in a tent

As is a tradition in the Northwest, the weather turned and we had a day of rain. That never deters the northwest camper; anyone who doesn’t own at least two folding canopies and several blue tarps is just not a serious camper. In our case, all of that deployed when we were setting up camp. We just moved our camp chairs from around the fire pit and under the nearest canopy. It did not deter the children from having fun either. The campground had a bouncing pillow which is essentially a larger rubber tarp stretched and sealed around the edges. A fan pumps air into it and it fills enough to be a sort of trampoline. The kids discovered that the rain made it slippery, turning in into a giant trampoline / slip and slide.

They jumped and slid until they were exhausted and soaked to the skin. Thank god the campground had hot showers and a laundry room or we might have never warmed the kids or seen their clothes dry any time soon.

I have gone on long enough here so I will save you a blow of further events. There were other group activities for the children including a tie-dye shirt project for the children, as well as the annual ‘try to cover your body including your face with temporary tattoos’ competition. The adults mostly confined themselves to eating and drinking. Tequila is the beverage of choice, and we had the usual ‘shots’ night, where the shot glass, bottle and lime are passed around This no longer a competition, as past years that has produced some embarrassing but very funny behavior that no one would remember except for the video. Now that a lot of the kids are older, it is just too hard to explain ones behavior to them the next day. We now keep it to a couple shots each, a nice buzz and lots of laughter and good stories. I don’t recall mother doing shots, I think she just sits, watches and wonders when we are all going to grow up. It has been a long wait so far.

One of the major tasks we undertake at annual camping trip is the group photo. This is the official record of the gathering and has become a nice way see how the kids have grown over the years. It is no easy task to get 30 people in several different families and associated pets to sit still long enough to get a good photograph. Of course everyone has their own cameras that need to record the scene. There is a minimum of 4 but usually more like 6 or 7. They are all propped on some object such as a picnic table or stack of camping coolers or something to get the right height. The timers then have to be set; this is delicate operation, as it has to be done with out jostling the camera some of which have wedges of wood or paper under them to achieve the finer alignment. The final step of firing all of the shutter buttons fell to brother Bruce and I this year. This is a task of fine timing as one has to hit the buttons on several cameras very quickly and then race back the group and pose nonchalantly while waiting for the phalanx of cameras to fire. Inevitable one or two misfire on the first try, either firing too soon and catch us running to our place in the photo, firing too late after every one thought they were done, or not firing at all leaving everyone waiting like it is a firecracker with a slow smoldering fuse. Either way it never takes less than 3 tries to get a (hopefully) good photo. With five or six cameras the odds are pretty good that someone will, get a decent shot, but we have been skunked in the past.

The final result. If anyone wants to know who all these people are, you are going to have to email me.

The final task is the discussion, ‘Where do we go next year’. We have thrown out a few names of locations, with some pros and cons for each but no final decision was made. Come October when reservations have to be made we will heat up the Internet with more detailed discussions. And that brings us all back to the beginning…..

I can’t wait ‘til next year….

And now a few random photos...

Pigpile - somewhere under that mass of kids is another person.

Interior of one of the hangers.

Bustling downtown Concrete

Our Campsite

Someone has a new toy

And as the sun slowly sinks in the west .....

This is actually an animated Gif file of the kids bouncing, I am posting it here as a test to see if it will work with different browsers.

August 12, 2008

A Sunday Outing

We tend to hit certain degree of lethargy in our household on the weekends. We are seldom out of bed early, and if there if there is an event planned we can’t seem to get out of the house before noon. The other members of the family are usually happy to sit about and reading, beading or computering, I on the other hand like to ‘do’ things on Sunday, just to get out of the house and break routine. This past spring we ‘won’ a gift certificate for a local canoe livery at a silent auction at the boy’s school early in the spring. Rather than let it go to waste, we marked our calendar and hoped for good weather.

The weather has been an issue this summer; it seems to have rained with almost daily with thunderstorms rolling through in the afternoon. The past week was particularly bad, with grey skies most of the day and periodic drenching rains. Sunday was the first day in a week that sunny and warm weather had been forecast, so we jumped at the chance to get out and get some sun and fresh air.

Even at that it was after 1:00 before we got out of the house. The canoe livery has 3 different sites and we chose the one in Newton that is on the Charles River, but several miles upriver from the city of Boston. (Think ‘Dirty Water’ by The Standells, and you know something about the Charles River.) Situated right off the highway but on a bucolic portion of the river that meanders 3 miles either direction where dams prevent further progress. True to the forecast, he day was sunny and warm with a few clouds on the horizon when we finally hit the water. It only took a few minutes for the wife and I to get our canoe arms back and we were paddling with the usual coordination that we used to in a past life. The boy was seated in the middle of the boat, he dipping his paddle in the water when he chose. We chose to head upriver first thinking that any current we might encounter we would want to face when we were fresh. That turned out not to be a concern as the river is dammed every few miles and what current exists is very mild.

From an aesthetic point of view the upstream path was not the best choice to start our travels. The river wound under several highway bridges, and the rural setting of the river was broken by the sometimes massive concrete structures and noise from the passing cars. But within a half-mile we were past the bridges and leisurely paddling along. Once past the bridges the river was mostly edged with parkland and at one point a golf course stretched its green rolling hills along the riverside. There was plenty of wildlife and water foul along the river too, turtles, many species of duck, a few swans and the ubiquitous Canada Geese, which the boy kept referring to as illegal aliens. Had we gotten an earlier start, we would have tried to make it all the way to the dam some 3 miles upriver, but instead turned around about half way there. As we reversed direction we noticed that clouds were forming into thunderheads along the horizon and filling part of the sky. What little current there was helped speed our way back down river a bit, and we passed a few other canoes and kayaks heading up river as we headed down.

When we passed the livery, the boy claimed to be bored and wanted to go in, we persevered however and kept paddling down river. Here river meandered even more and there were many inlets to explore. There were no bridges to pass under on this leg of the journey although we did pass a large hotel. Beyond that the shoreline was mostly parkland with a few houses scattered along some sections. Some of the houses were rather grand, but most were more like cottages, I could easily see us living in one of them although I am sure we could never afford to own one. Again the wildlife along the river abounded, with plenty of turtles sunning themselves on rocks and logs, and t one point we saw a Great Blue Heron glide in and land in one of the little side channels of the river.

The boy continued to complain about being bored and about his butt being sore from sitting on a cushion on the bottom of the canoe. The clouds continued to grow and were now turning gray, beginning to fill the larger portion of the sky. The boy began to protest the clouds saying that we needed to turn back because he didn’t want to get rained on. And while they were dark and gray, I was watching the direction that they were blowing and felt that we were not in any immediate danger of getting rained on. My sense of safety departed a short time later with the first bolt of lightening. More followed that over the next few minutes. I won’t say that we rushed to get back to the livery, but we didn’t dally any either. Reversing direction, we were heading upriver again and the light current and a developing head wind made the paddling a bit harder. The clouds began building more quickly and we felt our first drops of rain when we were still a mile from the livery. Of course the boy protested even louder, but I noticed that he paddled with more determination than before. The clouds were getting darker, and there were another one or tow cracks of lightening. Try as we might, we were unable to beat the rain. We were almost in sight of the livery when the clouds let loose. There is not much you can do when that happens in a canoe. The debate was, do we head for shore, look for cover and wait it out or just go for the gusto and make it back to the livery as fast one can. We chose the latter, given that by the time rain started. The sky was pretty much solid dark clouds and it didn’t look like this was going to be on that would blow over.

Our paddles flew in a relative sense, we were all pretty tired from 4 hours and several miles of paddling so that last half mile was pretty taxing as we pulled for home. Eventually we made it, soaked to the bone but in good spirits none-the-less. I think this is one outing the boy will remember, even as he does blame me for not turning around soon enough to avoid getting soaked, and we had a good laugh at our appearance when we got back on the dock.

We drove back home in a deluge, the rain falling even harder than before to the point that there was standing water over the roadway in places. So we made the right choice to run for the livery. I just wonder about all the people who were further out on the river than we were. But I guess that once you are soaked you can’t get much wetter, just more miserable.

All in all though it was so nice to get out on the river and in the fresh air for a day, even with the rain. I hope we can get out and do it again soon.

August 5, 2008

Salmon Soup

Whenever we visit Seattle, there is one place that I try to always visit with out fail. At the same time when anyone tells me that they are going to visit the city, I also recommend that they visit that same place; Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar. Named for the late Emmett Watson a somewhat curmudgeonly columnist for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, (He once sponsored the ‘Lesser Seattle’ organization to depromote the city during one of its spurts of popularity), it is tucked in the back corner of one of the maze of buildings that make up Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

I could digress on both of those topics at length, but I’ll spare you this time. It was the last day of our vacation, we were scheduled to depart that evening at 10pm, and because Mrs. had not arrived in the city until the day we were headed off for camping we had not had a chance to visit any of out favorite haunts. So we pack our belongings for the flight early in the morning and tried to get one day of sightseeing in before we departed. We started along the waterfront then worked out way up through the main part of the Pike Place Market, stopping in shops and at vendor’s stands and making a few purchase along the way. Those included a hand made cloth shoulder bag for the wife and a selection of jams made from Northwest berries. The temperate moist climate in the region is perfect for big juicy sweet berries of all sorts.

And finally we reached our quarry, Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar. In business since the mid 70’s the place is credited with reinvigorating the fresh oyster dining in Seattle. There seems to be oyster bars on every corner now in the trendy neighborhoods. In spite of the pedigree, Watson’s is a very unassuming place, in fact if one didn’t know better it could easily be taken for a greasy spoon. Tucked in a back corner, the restaurant consists of a couple dozen cramped wooden booths with no padding, a tight kitchen in the back with another little bar around it, and weather permitting there is outside seating along a narrow passage that leads to another building. It is almost European in it economy of space. The decorations tend towards beer sign, and the menu is printed on paper bags.

But as the song lyrics go, “Don’t let the glasses fool you.”* This ain’t no greasy spoon; the seafood and other ingredients are as fresh as you can get. The menu traditional Northwest seafood salmon, mussels, clams and oysters but with it’s own flair. All of it tasty and excellent, and relatively cheap.

But we really go there for there for one dish, that is unique to the place; the salmon soup. Imagine a clam broth seasoned pepper and oregano in that broth are tomato, onion, chunks of salmon fillet and a handful of steamed mussels. Topping it off is chunk of toasted French bread (I think it is grilled actually) and that is topped with a big dollop of aioli sauce. A little bit if heaven on earth is there ever was one.

We hardly looked at the menu before ordering. Even the boy who with the exception of salmon usually orders a grilled cheese sandwich, ordered the soup, and as the bowls of arrived, out trip west was complete was complete. We savored our meal along with a couple of local brews. There was hardly a drop anywhere when we finished; the boy even finished all of his except the mussels.

There was a bit of melancholy in the air as I paid the bill and we got up to leave. As is always the case we never seem to have the time to see all the things and people that we want to when we visit. In spite of having not lived in Seattle in nearly 30 years, there is a part of me that still feels like it is home. I was more acutely aware of it this trip. I still have piles of family here, (more on that in a later post), and the boy is reaching an age where the family is becoming more important to him. At the same time he is also of an age that he can appreciate that I saw and did in the city as I was growing up here.

*David Bromberg: Demon in Disguise

August 3, 2008

Back Home

A view of a meadow, the sun and the mountains in the distance from the campgrounds.

Ok, I am back from vacation, and I think I have recovered.

We arrived back in Boston Wednesday morning having taken the red-eye out of Seattle at 10pm, that is 1:00am Boston time, and landed at 8:30am having a brief stopover in Detroit about 5:30am. Any one who has taken one of those cross-country overnight flights knows that the sleep one gets on them can hardly be called sleep; mostly it is fit full napping. Needless to say we were toasted when we arrived back in town the weather had been so-so in Seattle, appropriate to legend, it rained some days, and was sunny others. Our arrival back in town as greeted with sunny, hot and muggy weather, which hit us like a brick and only increased out sense of toastedness. We spent the rest of the day sort of stumbling around the house unpacking, doing laundry and catching up on email and the like. I had intended to stop into the office briefly, but never made it. I did check messages and email from home, and other than some follow up on a re-carpeting the theatre, there wasn’t much happening. Somehow we survived the day.

In spite of the general exhaustion, I found it hard to go to bed too early as almost 2 weeks on the west coast had readjusted my internal clock and I was running 3 hours earlier that Boston time. I did manage to get to bed about 11pm, and slept soundly. Getting up on time and getting back to routine was a little difficult, particularly for the boy. But we were back at it in full swing on Thursday, vacation a distant dream.

Rather than blog the whole trip day-by-day, blow-by-blow, I am going to post a few thematic blogs. Too much went on and too much is mundane day-to-day stuff that by now I have probably half forgotten.

Mountain view in Darington, Wa, along the Sauk River Valley. How would you like that as a back yard view?