April 27, 2009

History on a Roll

1st Church Steeple

Patriots Day

Last Monday was Patriots day in Massachusetts, and contrary to popular belief it is not named after the football team, it is a state holiday to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were the opening salvos in the revolutionary war in 1775. It also happens to be the day that the Boston Marathon is run, but that is a whole other story.

We care little of either the football team or the marathon, so that leaves the commemoration part of the holiday for us. As I have mentioned before, our little neighborhood of Roxbury was once a separate town from Boston and was nestled on the first high ground once one passed out of the city and across the narrow strip of land (the neck) that connected Boston to the mainland. All roads out of Boston passed through Roxbury. This made it a strategic location when it came to the Revolution. What had been town square and is now the grounds of the 1st Church of Roxbury had been the site of much to-do in that period, and a number of the local community group had organized events to commemorate that on the grounds. I think this was the first year that we actually planned ahead for the event, usually we kind of remember sometime after breakfast, and by the time we are ready to go most of the events are over at about 9:30 we met our neighbors from across the street and walked the two blocks to the church. The festivities were already in progress, and a good number of our other neighbors were gathered in front of the church for the speeches and awards. The highlight of the morning’s events was the reenactment of the ride of William Dawes to warn the citizens of Lexington that the British were assembling to attack. Dawes was one of two other who went on the ‘midnight ride’. After a pronouncement from the rider and a reading a parody of the original poem, adding Dawes into the events, the rider was off, to supposedly follow the path of the original ride. I was concerned for the safety of both the horse and the rider, the route has changed a lot in 235 years, and they didn’t have Boston traffic back then.

Friends and family gathered

After the rider disappeared into the traffic. I went into the church to listen to a talk on one of the local African American patriots of the era. Although the talk was interesting, I was more interested in the church. Built in 1804 it is the oldest wooden frame church in Boston. The congregation has shrunk over the years, and while the church is in solid condition and has been maintained, it has not been heavily restored, and many of the original furnishings are extant. It is showing it’s age like a fine patina over the structure with just enough age and peeling paint to let one know that is has been in service a long time.

The next event of the day was a trolley tour of the historic sites in the neighborhood that was narrated by a local state Senator who spent many years in the neighborhood. I like to think that I have learned a lot about the local history, but I jump at the chance to hear from local residents. This turned out to be a gold mine of a trip. There were many people on the ride that were old time residents, and there was much discussion and many memories that rolled out at each stop on the trip. It was fun and enlightening.

One of the other activities of the day was tour of the Shirley-Eustis House. This is the only remaining royal governors house remaining in the country. Located about a mile from our house in what is now a densely populated urban neighborhood, when it was constructed from 1747-1751, the location was open country that backed up to the slat mashes of the South Bay. The house was a private residence until roughly the civil war but then was divided into apartments and later abandoned. It was rescued by a private organization in 1913, but wasn’t restored and opened to the public until the 1980’s.

We drive by the place on a regular basis but never had the opportunity to actually visit the house. After the trolley ride we drove over to see if we could join one of the tours. Much to our disappointment we had missed the last one of the day. As we were about to leave the proprietor of the house saw recognized us from earlier in the day and mentioned that the caretaker was giving a private tour a little later to a couple of friends. He offered to include us on that tour. We jumped at the chance, and after a short wait, we were treated to a leisurely casual tour of the house. The caretaker turned out to be a dental student at a local university, and while he had a good grasp of the history of the house. He wasn’t a longtime resident and didn’t know a lot of the local history and lore. The 4 other people on the tour were not locals either, so we were able to add what we knew of the local history into the details of the history of the house I think everyone came away a lot richer for it. The house has been restored to a period of the late 18th century when most of the interior details has survived from some how thy had managed to find furniture and other artifacts that had once been in the house, as well personal affects of some of the more rebound residents, and while the house was not packed with antiques of the period, it was enough to give the feeling of how the house might have looked and functioned at the time. Most interesting to me were a couple of cubbyholes where behind a small door one could see some of the old interior walls left from another configuration of the house that dated to a period later that the period of the restoration.

What a day! I have not been inundated with that much living history in a single day. I just hope that I can retain a small bit of what I heard and saw.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall looking towards what had been South Bay

The Master Bedroom

A hidden nook showing old renovations, note the painted 'wallpaper'.

April 21, 2009

Harvest Time

Time has come to harvest the last of the herbs.

We were given an Aero Garden for Christmas. If you aren’t familiar with them, they are a mini hydroponics garden for your counter top. It has a pair of grow lights and a circulating pump that delivers water to each plant, and all of this is controlled by a micro processor that turns the lights and water on at a predetermined time and reminds you when you need to add water and fertilizer. The plants come in little single serving cups that fit into receptacles on the top, and each one has it’s own water supply delivered by the pump. The version we have has spaces for 7 plants. With it we received a kit with 14 cups of a variety of herbs, we chose our 7 for the first planting, they were 2 different varieties of basil, chives, oregano, savory, parsley and epizote.

We ‘planted’ right after Christmas and the first sprouts came up in about a week and within 4 weeks the plants were growing enough that we could harvest a few leaves occasionally. In a couple of more weeks the plants reached the point that we could harvest leaves without worrying about striping them bare. But overall the results were mixed. The cats decided that they liked the chives and kept eating the shoots. Unfortunately chives can be toxic to cats so we removed that cup; they never got taller than an inch before they ate them anyway. On the other hand we found that the oregano also had mint growing in with it, so that made up for the lost chives. The parsley never really produced enough to use in any quantity, and we never really found a consistent use for the epizote or the savory. The basil on the other hand grew like gangbusters, and it seems we were using it every day in something. We love basil so that waa more of a treat than a problem. The same is also true of the oregeno, but it was getting a little crowded by the mint so we didn't have it in a large quantity.

Now the plants are nearly spent, and it is time to do a final harvest. We will try drying the remainders. We have a kit on order for starters for the garden; we will see how that works out. It has been great having fresh herbs in the house during the long cold winter, although having the grow lights on 18 hour a day was sometimes annoying.

So as we were picking the last of the herbs I did a little calculation. Let see, 70 watts of light for 18 hours a day for 30 days a month at 20.7 cents a kilowatt hour (that is 12.7 cents generation charge and 8.0 cents delivery charge) is $7.83 a month x 4 months equals $31.30. I thought I noticed the electric bill go up a notch over the winter.

Them’s some expensive herbs! I could surely get them for less at the grocery store, but that somehow isn't the point.

April 19, 2009


I have been just a little busy lately, lots going on, but no time to write about it, but I wanted to relate one quick anecdote.

I was taking an online survey a bit ago, and the race question came up. Instead of asking 'What race are you?', It was worded as "With what group do you most closely associate?' This is an entirely different question. I am white, but I live in a primarily African American neighborhood, on the other hand Mrs. is Native American, but I work at a university who's population is primarily white.

I was stumped!

April 7, 2009


I have a confession to make. I have an addiction, it occasionally gets in the way of me leading a productive life, but more often that not, it makes me the subject of ridicule from my wife and child. When it rears its’ head, they both just look and me and shake their heads, my son will occasionally break out in out in derisive laughter. That is hard to take from a 13 year old. I suppose I could seek some sort of help for this, but I’d prefer to deal with it on my own.

My addiction: Solar powered yard lights!

See, you are laughing too.

This is serious.

I have it mostly in control bet every so often it rears its head and I have a deep personal battle of the will.

It started out simply enough; the back yard can be dark at night, and there are no lights on the rear of the house. I bought the first two as sort of nightlights for the path from the gat to the door. They weren’t very bright but they did the trick and those sufficed for a couple of years. As we improved the yard with plantings and replaced the cyclone fence with a wooden one, the lighting needed upgrading as well. I went on to my favorite online auction site for electronics Ubid and found a couple of sets of 4 for a few dollars a piece. The new ones were sleek and shiny chrome, and the LEDs we re clear white and much brighter than the original ones, when the garden fills out they look really cool glowing in amongst the plants at night. Being the lazy sot that I am I didn’t bother to being them in during the winter, but I found that they looked equally cool at night in the snow. Since then I have often eyed the lights in various stores, thinking how they might look in the yard.

They are now a couple of years old and the weather has taken it’s toll on them; the batteries don’t take a charge as well, and the solar cells are getting flakey from being exposed the elements 24/365. It is time to replace some of them and maybe even add to the total.

I returned to Ubid earlier in the spring and again found a set of four for a couple of dollars apiece. These ones are color-changing no less, now how cool is that? I placed my order and waited. When the order arrived I found that they had accidentally doubled it sending me 8 instead of 4. Double Cool!

Suddenly I am seeing sets of solar powered yard lights every store I visit. Home Depot has them, the grocery store has then even the drug store is selling them. The worst of all is Costco; they must have a dozen sets. There are the copper ones that look like antique coach lanterns, and there is the French Provincial ones with curving sensuous shapes. There is a set that looks like champaign flutes where the whole body of the light is illuminated. There is even as set that is reminiscent of the old bubbler Christmas tree lights.

I want them all!

Having lusted after them on previous visits, on our last visit to Costco I couldn’t resist and purchased the set that had been tugging the hardest at me. Mrs. looked at me with bemused chagrin as I put them in the shopping cart. This was a set of 4 lights; each copper shaft with a small colored glass ball with an LED inside, surrounding the ball is a copper figure of either the sun or the moon. Did I mention that the light change color too? They look almost magical as they glow and change in the dark. I can’t wait to get them out in the yard when the plants start coming up.

I am afraid to go back to Costco, because I know that I will not be able to resist those champaign flutes ones, and we are due for another trip this week. On the other hand, maybe I’ll just swing by after work and pick up a set.

If I have my count correct, I have about 20 working solar yard lights. That may not seem like a lot but you need to understand that the yard is only 25 feet on a side. We know people with larger living rooms than our yard! One part of me says is it totally out of control, and another part says the more the merrier. It is a serious internal battle, and I am worried that the ‘more’ side is winning out.

I think that I might be getting a little eccentric in my middle age. This has me worried as well. Just the other day I was talking with the boy and mentioned that one of the denizens of the neighborhood was a ‘character’ and he replied, “Well you know dad, you are a bit of a character too.”

Out of the mouths of babes, or at least 13-year olds…

I am doomed, I tell you, doomed.

April 6, 2009

More Plumbing fun

As I was writing that last entry, little did I know that the plumbing in the main bathroom was planning a revolt! The diverter that switches the flow from tub to shower suddenly got very hard to turn and would not completely switch from tub to shower. Again with an old house you never know what you are going to find when you embark on repairs. I disassembled the faucet, with a little help from a rubber mallet and in spite of my vast collection gaskets and washers, nothing in my stock fit. The next stop, on the next day was a to the local Home Depot, when I showed the core to the clerk. He said that they didn’t carry that part but suggested some possible solutions. I shuffled through the washer and gasket selection, choosing a few that I thought might work with some alterations I also checked out what replacement faucet assemblies were available. I didn’t relish the thought of replacing it, but I was fully prepared to do so if necessary.

After dinner on the next night I settled in to attempt repairs. With the help of my trusty Dremel tool, I shaved and drilled the washers to match the worn ones. With great anticipation I reassembled the faucet. Victory denied! It still didn’t work correctly. After several tried at taking it apart again and tweaking and readjusting (and spraying my self with water) it was obvious that nothing I could do would make it work, so I gave up, consigned to the task of replacing the entire faucet assembly. I returned to the Home Depot the next day. But before springing for the new faucet assembly, I returned to the parts department, where upon I discovered a book that listed a wide variety of faucet cores complete with illustrations of each one. Clutching my worn part in one hand I went through the book page by page comparing it to the photos. Wonder of wonders, the part was listed in the catalogue! Miracle of Miracles, the part was in stock, although buried on the rack. Mentally dope-slapping the clerk who had told me the previous day that the part was unavailable, I left the store a much happier guy. That evening I was able to install the replacement core in about 15 minutes, familiar as I now was with the assembly procedures. The best part of all; the thing worked perfectly when I was done.

There is a lesson in there somewhere let me know if you figure it out. I was just pleased that I didn’t have to do a major repair.

As a footnote, as I was taking the garbage out to the curb at 7:15 this morning, I ran into a gentleman who had grown in the house from 1937 to 1961. He is now a college professor but occasionally stops by the neighbor hood just to see what has changed. we chatted for a few minutes, he mentioned that he was happy to see the house still standing after so many houses had fallen to disrepair and were demolished in the 70's. I joked that I was surprised as well as it was a money pit and that the house required constant attention to keep it from falling down. He retorted that some things never change, it was a money pit back when he lived there and he remember his father and his brothers doing the same thing 50 years earlier.

Picture: First Church of Roxbury, built in 1803 is the 5th 'meeting house' to be built on this site. It is the oldest wood frame church in Boston The 4th meeting house on the site (1746 - 1803) was the location from which William Dawes departed as one of the three riders on the night of April 8, 1775 to warn Lexington that the British were coming. The other two riders were Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott.

Running as Fast As I Can

Let me see if I can rescue this blog. I started this entry almost a week ago, but time and inspiration has transpired against me.

So spring seems to be in the air finally, the light is right anyhow, all we need is the warmer weather. We have been opening the windows a crack just to get some fresh air in the house. It is just a little too chilly yet to really open them wide and air the place. Other signs of spring: I have a sudden urge to clean. It might be the change in the light; suddenly all the dirt and smudges show. The previous Sunday I was wiping the kitchen counters after breakfast and looked at the cupboards. Before I knew it I had the Murphy’s Oil soap out and had was scrubbing down the cabinets from top to bottom. I think that the same thing must have affected Mrs. as she decided to scrub out the refrigerator after we got home from the grocery store. Now if it would just inspire the boy in the same way.

Whatever the force is that dives the urge to clean also seems to be awakening all sorts of slumbering urges. All of the ignored home maintenance and repair projects are also coming to the surface. I had planed to take care of at least one of the indoor jobs over the winter break, but entropy set in and I accomplished almost none of what I had planned, the bedroom remains unpainted, and the wall in the lower bathroom still has a large hole in it resulting from the major plumbing repair job last fall.

Of course there are the outdoor projects now are added to the list, and that doesn’t include the garden and yard projects. The front porch needs some TLC, and the shed over the back door has some rot at the bottom. Both are projects that have either the easy solution or the more complicated one. In both cases, I can disassemble them and rebuild them using mostly new materials or only remove and replace the badly worn or broken parts. Both have their advantages, the first solution is more expensive, and also means it should last longer before the next deeded repair. The latter solution is should be faster and cheaper but living in a 135 year old house, one never knows what surprises on may find when you start taking things apart. One can easily end up doing the complete rebuild anyway. Thinking about all the projects that need to be done around the house, I could easily take the summer off and do nothing but home repair and maintenance. It is kind of tempting; I think I will check my vacation accrual.

Before undertaking any major projects, I still need to get thru the next few weeks. There are multiple events every week until the end of the month. The previous couple of weeks were no different, with the added complication of the boy being on spring break for tow weeks both Mrs. and I were able take a few days off to keep him busy, but he also spent a few days home alone as well. He doesn’t seem to mind that, but it isn’t something I like to do if it can be avoided.

So in the last couple of weeks a wide variety of events have taken place in the theatre we have seen a local community school talent show, an a-cappella group competition, a student production of Into the Woods and a lecture by author and nutritionist Michael Pollan. The latter was sponsored by the campus office of special events and was expected to be a very popular event. In the planning stages, to make sure that it was well attended, they distributed 50 % more tickets than there are seats in the theatre. When I found that out I protested, asking them what they were going to do when 700 people showed up for a and event with only 600 seat. They suggested that they just stand in the back. I explained that state law dictates that the fire department dictates what the capacity of the space is and that state law does not allow us to exceed that. Having worked in theatre for most of my adult life and having been a theatre manager for the last 7 or 8 years, audience safety is rule one, and the particularly hit home when a few years back when a night club in Rhode Island burned down killing over 100 people. It is one area in which I will not compromise. They were finally convinced that they needed to have overflow spaces for the potential 300 additional attendees. The day before the event, I got an email from one someone in the upper levels of the administration asking if they could forgo the reading of the fire safety and evacuation procedures before the event because it seemed ‘amateurish’. I explained that is wasn’t my call and that it was required by state law, and then emailed them a link to that statute in the state code.

I don’t think I made any friends with the organizers on this event.
It just galls me that the administration would bring in a speaker whos' principal theme is food safety, but then will turn around and want ignore all the safety rules set in place to protect the audience at the same event. I don’t think anyone got the disconnect.

For all the trouble, the event went off very well. They begrudgingly abbreviated the fire safety announcement, but did it never the less, and the over flow spaces were packed nearly to capacity, with a total attendance in all spaces at well over 800! I felt vindicated after that.

Picture: Dillaway-Thomas House: built around 1750 is was the parsonage for the First Church of Roxbury. It served as General John Thomas headquarters during the the seige of Boston 1775-1776. The city almost tore it down in 1927, in order to build a school on the site. The residents protested and the school was built around the house.