June 29, 2010

The Canonical Penguin: Exploits of the 215th Street Gang – The Pool Hall

If you are going to have a good gang, you need some illicit stuff to be part of and the 215th Street Gang had that in our pool hall and athletic stadium. Let me explain…

The pool hall was a 7 foot pool table in our basement. It was great down there because it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter and we could get in and out without being seen, using the basement door on the back of the house. My father’s tools were nearby so whenever we were into mischief, it was easy to have the proper equipment. When we tired of pool, we had a wooden top to place on the table and if you add a net, you have a neat ping pong table. I could not even estimate the time we spent there doing that stuff. Eventually we got into motor sports and this table top is where the car racing set went. Even back then we were multitasking!

(Our buddy Tom, playing ping pong like a Chinese pro!)

Most of our gambling empire was connected to our illegal card games on Friday and Saturday nights. We played penny poker till all hours, usually topped off by several great pieces of VIP Pizza, a local place with the best pie in the neighborhood. We couldn’t call it an official game until Tom wiped his fingers on the pizza box cover for good luck. Again, much too much fun. I did a VIP Pizza entry in the post before this one...

We also used this table top for the Bayside Gerbil Olympics. We had several of the little critters and many an afternoon was spent making obstacle courses and climbing areas for them on the table top. We even would let them wander around the racetrack which created “giant rats attack cars” scenarios which we took pictures of. I have no idea if any of the pix survived but they were great. It also was a gerbil that led to my brother’s marriage. I’ll let him tell the full story. We will let it suffice to say one crawled up his pants leg and when his pants hit the ground, his future wife saw that from her house window.

(These are stories about things that actually happened with plenty of witnesses. It has passed from the apocryphal to canonical in nature. Wiki says of canon – “material that is considered to be "genuine", "something that actually happened", or can be directly referenced as material produced by the original author or creator.”)

June 28, 2010

The Canonical Penguin – Food, Glorious Food…

…or more specifically, PIZZA. As anyone who has lived in NYC and then other places (or lived in other places and moves to NYC) knows, NYC has the best pizza in the world, hands down, no argument allowed or considered. Famous Chef Mario Batali has said it is the water that makes the pizza what it is. People from Chicago will argue, throwing out the whole deep dish pizza idea and there might be a bit of wiggle room there with the explanation that pizza is a thin crust product. Deep Dish Pizza, so many inches tall is a different animal and very, very delicious. I might even say that Chicago is THE place for the Deep Dish but as previously stated NYC has the BEST thin crust pie.

It has been said there is a bar on every corner in NYC and if that is true, then there are pizza joints on each side of it. What this really means is that every neighborhood, every hamlet, has a pizza place you swear by. You are a faithful customer, only getting your fix there unless circumstances don’t allow for that, at which point it is necessary to compare the slice in hand to your place’s slice and shake your head side to side, while affirming that “it’s not as good as the pizza at_____!” So now this leads me into a sad story about my pizza place.

VIPizza has been around for a long time, in its current location in Bayside, NY as it has been since I was a pre-teen some years ago. Ok, lets say 45 years at least. That is where we got our slices, that is only where we did even if there were at least 3 other places relatively the same distance from our house. When we got into our gambling binge where we played penny poker every Friday and Saturday night, a VIPizza was not far away. My friend Tommy even perfected the ritual of wiping pizza grease on the box as a good luck charm when he was doing poorly. Plain, Sicilian, pepperoni or not, doesn’t matter. It was the best. When we moved to Massachusetts, we recognized that loss whenever we got pizza or at least what the denizens of MA call that thing we get. When we had children, we would make sure to expose them to the glories of VIPizza whenever we visited. CollegeBoy became a disciple. Unfortunately, we messed up with MillieJupiter who does not like pizza at all although she has said she could handle a slice from VIPizza which is more than she has ever done before.

But now, the bad news. In the last couple of years, VIPizza was sold. Horrors! They new owners, although they make a good pie, cannot match the VIPizza tradition. I knew there were problems when relatives who still live down there told us they got their pizza from a different place now.


When we visited New Mexico in our retirement search tour, our friends took us to a place that had real brick oven pizza and it was excellent. The only problem is that it was not NY pizza. They tell us however that they opened a NY style pizza place near the NMSU campus. We drove by there during the visit but it had not opened yet. It opened up soon after that and The Zees report that it is an excellent pie! Hopefully it will be able to take the place of the childhood favorite but no longer attainable VIPizza. I’ll let you know.

(These are stories about things that actually happened with plenty of witnesses. It has passed from the apocryphal to canonical in nature. Wiki says of canon – “material that is considered to be "genuine", "something that actually happened", or can be directly referenced as material produced by the original author or creator.”)

June 27, 2010

PROPOSAL: A New Internet Law

As the geekiest of us knows, there is a set of internet “laws” that provide insight into what the internet is, how it is run and who is out there on it. These laws are a light hearted look at internet practices. For example (these are all taken from Wikipedia) there is Godwins Law - As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1, Poe's law (religious fundamentalism) — "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing, or Skitt's law — A corollary of Muphy's law, variously expressed as, "Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself," or even Pommer’s Law “A person's mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.”

If you use the internet a lot, you will have encountered all of these at one time or another. I use the internet a lot. I do a lot of research for my blog this way, for our podcast this way and just as a way to find humorous entertainment. Over the last several months, I have seen something changing and wanted to offer some commentary on it. As such, I am proposing a new law to be recognized about the internet, a corollary of Godwin’s law. Godwin states that as internet discussions grow longer, the odds of a Hitler or Nazi reference becomes almost a certainty. Well, the Countless Screaming Argonauts Corollary (CSA Corollary) to Godwin’s law is that in almost any internet discussion, the more posts there are, the more likely you are to get a negative or offensive political reference. The keywords seem to come in two groups – the consistent one like Obama, Bush, Obama v. Bush, Palin, Bachmann or even tea party reference. The other keyword group seems to change according to the political issue de jure, such as health care, oil spill, immigration reform or bank bailout. As examples of this political negativity popping up in the most unlikeliest of places, I offer this example from Reddit, which appeared on Monday, the day after Father’s Day.

Someone posted the famous quote attributed to Mark Twain, “When I was a young boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to 21 I was astonished at how much he had learned.” As is the style of reddit, this was followed by a series of reader submitted comments, most in the “I like that” or Happy Father’s Day” meme. However, this is where the CSA Corollary kicks in. Comment 13 was a statement by someone that their father was a bigot and poor example, but he still loved him as he was his father. By comment 15, the bigotry and hatefulness had become political fodder, by 18, it was a right wing/left wing comparison, and 21 brought out Obama and hate. It continued. By comment 26 we were in the throes of right wing radio, and then the focus shifted to the original quote which was now redefined as a Twainism, an apocryphal saying in Twain’s style as Twain’s own father died when Twain was 11. Well you get the picture.

Just about any discussion nowadays seems to go in this manner. It is somewhat like a roller coaster, peaking when the political issues are hot. I know several people who have had blog and Facebook entries taken over by political zealots, trolls really, complete with name calling and other abuses. It seems as if there are bunches of political crazies out there just looking to argue. I have always gone for political debate but the anger and abusiveness is over the top right now.

Just for laughs, a review of internet stories just this past week showed several further examples when the CSA Corollary to Godwin’ Law was seen:
-In a story about Oprah and Zach Anner Controversy, the 31st comment brought up a negative Tea Party slam;
-In a story about Jay Leno’s poor ratings, the 71st comment in the third main comment thread brought up an Obama and health care slam

I’m sorry people; we really need to be more tolerant of opposing views. And, let’s ease up on the politics ok, check out Lolcats or fake science or something and have a laugh!

June 25, 2010

The Apocryphal Penguin: Giant Spiders!

(Wikipedia defines the term apocrypha as a word “used with various meanings, including "hidden", "esoteric", "spurious", "of questionable authenticity", and "Christian texts that are not canonical". The story that follows is handed down in my family as history, with no one to actually verify its veracity. In the interest of full disclosure, this story is possibly apocryphal and I am making no claims that they are 100% accurate. If any of my siblings read this and make comments / corrections/ or have different memories, I will share them too.) And so now without further ado:

Spiders the size of basketballs

My grandmother was a great cook. If I only knew then, what I know now, I would have watched her prepare everything and learned how to do it right. She was from the old country, born near Naples, Italy and came to this country when she was in her early teens. In those days she did things the old school way – that is fresh food, prepared by hand, lovingly, and in mass quantities, like any good Italian household. She made a Sunday sauce to die for, fresh meats in a tomato sauce that cooked on top of the stove for hours. Ravioli was handmade on the kitchen table with a wooden window shade as a rolling pin, all cut by hand. I loved her veal parmigana and her Italian cookies were the best.

A staple of the Italian household was fresh fruits and vegetables. Her house in Bayside NY had a peach tree in the back yard. She also had several fig bushes around the yard which she hand fertilized with the fish guts her son and my dad caught. We always had cats hanging around our yard and the figs she grew were the size of baseballs. All of this leads me to the story of the pears and spiders.

Near our home there was a tiny municipal airport, the kind with itty bitty planes. Its biggest claim to fame was that this was where they parked the Goodyear Blimp whenever it was in town. On a road, past this airport there was a small grove of fruit trees, in an abandoned plot of land. No doubt, a small orchard of a long gone home owner or farmer. I don’t remember exactly but I think they were mostly pear trees, but there could have been others. One day our parents packed us up for a ride and after watching the planes land for a while, we took the road to the pear trees. Out of the trunk came a large bag and my dad walked thru some tall weeds to the tree and began picking ripe pears. All was going smoothly until my grandmother began shouting and pointing. Right near my dad was a giant spider.

As I remember, the spider was easily the size of a basketball. There are two problems with this. First, we do not have any spiders in NYC this size. Maybe these were mutant spiders created from the toxic dumping of chemicals in College Point sound. Perhaps it was the tree branches that gave it that appearance or maybe the adrenaline from the screaming, but it was that big and moving in for the kill. My dad came flying out of the tree, into the car and we pealed out of the roadside dirt headed back to home. Everything ended up all right and we got pear cookies that night.

This is filed under the Apocryphal heading because of the giant spider image. All the other parts of this story are generally personal memories that can be trusted.

June 23, 2010

An interesting way to spend 7 minutes...

A friend of mine sent me this link a movie clip. What makes this so interesting is the age of it and the subject. From her description: You are "there" for a cable car ride in San Francisco This film was "lost" for many years. It was the first 35mm film ever. It was taken by a camera mounted on the front of a cable car. The number of automobiles is staggering for 1906. Absolutely amazing! The clock tower at the end of Market Street at the Embarcadero wharf is still there. This film, originally thought to be from 1905 until David Kiehn with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum figured out exactly when it was shot. From New York trade papers announcing the film showing to the wet streets from recent heavy rainfall & shadows indicating time of year & actual weather and conditions on historical record, even when the cars were registered (he even knows who owned them and when the plates were issued!).. It was filmed only four days before the Great California Earthquake of April 18th 1906 and shipped by train to NY for processing. Amazing, but true!

I was really entertained by this, watching the people get on and off the cable cars while they travel by, the crazy drivers weaving in and out of the traffic, the animal drawn wagons. Even the paperboy who obviously sees the camera and makes several attempts to get on the film. Watch how the people react to the cars and trucks and wagons too. Great stuff! Enjoy

June 22, 2010

Where do all those 3D glasses go?

I am not a big movie person, only seeing a handful every year. We have developed a family tradition however of seeing a couple or so flicks together now that we are not all together all the time (I will post about the movie tradition in a later post) As such we tend to go to the BIG films together. This past year it has included Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3, each in 3D. As I was sitting waiting for the film to begin and playing with the glasses, I had this thought – “What do they do with all those 3D glasses? I asked MillieJupiter on the way home and we speculated there must be some recycling but neither of us knew. So to the trusty internets I went to get the 100%, totally correct, never be wrong answer to this query.

Imagine my surprise to learn that the internets is confused on this matter too. After some quick skimming of several articles (which is how the internets is making us stupid nowadays – no one reads it all, there is too much!) I came up with two possible things that are happening. In one article it lamented the fact that ABC News reported that Good Housekeeping did a study of 3D glasses in metro NYC and found that the glasses were contaminated with lots of bacteria that cause some problems like “conjunctivitis, skin infections, food poisoning, or even sepsis or pneumonia, but docs say that the germs found are no more threatening than what you find on the arm rest, box of popcorn, or movie seats” This made me squirm a bit. A second article stated that “RealD, the company that developed the technology for the current trend in 3D movies, started a recycling program for the glasses last fall to address this problem with cardboard containers at theater exits to deposit glasses.” And “Both Dolby and RealD's recycling system collects the 3D glasses, puts them through industrial dishwashers, and sterilizes them to be reused by another customer.” They figure that they can handle the washing process about 500 times but they do not say what happens next. Remember about 42 million people saw Avatar in 3D and along with Alice, means millions of glasses being shipped to and fro plus the cleaning process itself all of which use substantial amounts of energy for a pair of cheap sunglasses (Sorry ZZ Top!)

Finally one other article mentioned a company called “Oculus3D glasses, by Cereplast Inc., uses bio-based, sustainable plastic resins for the glasses. When discarded, the glasses will return to nature in less than 180 days with no chemical residues or toxicity in the soil.” Another potential solution but I worry about the wasted energy of making millions and millions of glasses for each and every movie coming out and a one use pair of glasses at that. I’m not too sure there is a savings there in environmental impact.

The better long term solution might be for people to invest a few dollars in 3D glasses they would own and bring each time they went to a movie. I’m just not convinced that this would happen consistently enough to be environmentally significant. Say, has anyone seen my 3D glasses? I guess I’ll have to stop at WalMart on the way and get a new pair…

June 17, 2010

 The Apocryphal Penguin: Aunt Bee

(Wikipedia defines the term apocrypha as a word “used with various meanings, including "hidden", "esoteric", "spurious", "of questionable authenticity", and "Christian texts that are not canonical". The story that follows is handed down in my family as history, with no one to actually verify its veracity. In the interest of full disclosure, this story is possibly apocryphal and I am making no claims that they are 100% accurate. If any of my siblings read this and make comments / corrections/ or have different memories, I will share them too.)

And so now without further ado:

Getting Down with Aunt Bee or Brush with Greatness

If you look at Wikipedia for Aunt Bee, it will tell you that “Beatrice Taylor (commonly known as Aunt Bee) is a fictional character from the 1960s American television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. The show was televised on CBS from October 3, 1960, until April 1, 1968. The character migrated to the spinoff Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-1971) when The Andy Griffith Show ended its run.” Click the link for the actress and you learn that “Frances Elizabeth Bavier (December 14, 1902 – December 6, 1989) was an American stage and television actress. Originally from the New York theatre, Bavier worked in film and television from the 1950s. She played the continuing role of Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. from 1960 to 1970, and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Comedy Actress for the role in 1967.”

What this does not tell you is that Ms. Bavier lived on 215th Street in Bayside, NY until she relocated to Hollywood in the mid 1950’s. That house I am very familiar with. You see, my parents bought that home from Ms. Bavier and we moved into it in 1959, a couple of years and many hours of renovations later.

Now for the apocrypha part. Were my parents friends of hers? Can’t say. Did they keep in touch with her? Don’t think so. As for the ever popular internet meme “It didn’t happen unless there are pictures, I offer this:

That picture of Aunt Bee and the baby Penguin was taken in my grandmother’s house where my parents and I and my brother Mike lived until we moved to the Bee home in 1959. That chair complete with some of my grandmothers crocheting was in the living room with those windows overlooking the street and front stoop. That is not a grimace on my face, but rather a youngsters attempt at a smile. Do I remember her? Nope. But there were always reminders at home of having been connected to Hollywood royalty. This included the purple and black tile in the upstairs bathroom. The second picture is from Google images for comparison sake for those that might doubt the tale.

June 15, 2010

The Apocryphal Penguin

In response to this post, Mrsfabp mentioned that I was getting nostalgic in my blogging and asked me to write about an experience I had as a very young child. In the interest of full disclosure, this story is possibly apocryphal. Wikipedia defines the term apocrypha as a word “used with various meanings, including "hidden", "esoteric", "spurious", "of questionable authenticity", and "Christian texts that are not canonical". So in essence what I am saying is that this story is handed down in my family as history, canon, with no one to actually be able to verify its veracity. I will relate it and several other stories under the “Apocryphal Penguin” heading as such, making no claims that they are 100% accurate. If any of my siblings read this and make comments / corrections/ or have different memories, I will share them too. And so now without further ado:

The Trike and Stoop Challenge
When I was very young, we lived one block from where I spent most of my growing up years. Actually it was about 300 feet as the two different backyards connected with each other. This house, typical for the Queens neighborhood (think Archie Bunker) had both a front stoop and a back stoop. For those who might not know, stoop is New Yorkese for a set of stairs leading up to or down from a door. The one on the front of the house was brick. The one on the back into the yard was wood.

Now as story is told in my family, I was riding a tricycle around the house and for some reason decided to ride out the back door into the yard. Unfortunately at age 3-4 my grasp of physics and gravity was not good and I plunged down the stairs into the back yard. Shaken up but not deterred, I continued the ride on the back patio. Again for full disclosure purposes, I do not remember this trike or that fall. I do remember the house and the two stoops, the back yard, and have some vague memories of living there, but very vague. It was not the first time I fell flat on my ass, nor would it be the last either.

Our dog Blackie
Also around this same time, we had a dog, a mutt named I believe “Blackie”. He was small, wiry, hyper and all black. Again, I do not remember him at all and most of the things I will tell you are from verbal history passed down through the family. Is it true? Who knows? Exaggerated? Probably, but it is still family history none the less. My father and grandmother always insisted that he was a very smart dog, you know, the kind that did tricks and such. I can remember seeing some old home movies where he would roll over or sit motionless on a kitchen chair as it was lofted over my dad’s and uncle’s head. But then the dog did a not so smart thing, he bit me. Again I don’t remember this at all. You might think I would have held this trauma memory forever but no, I’ve got nothing. Anyway, I understand that my parent’s reaction was quick and decisive, Blackie was sent to “the farm’ the next day. Years later my grandmother continued to say he went to “the farm”, a euphemism for “being put down” a euphemism for the ultimate punishment, but again no memories of this except for a few frames in some old home movies.

More stories in a later blog entry...

June 13, 2010

Gangs of New York – The Lesser Known History

In Martin Scorsese’s epic film “Gangs of New York” he offers an historical perspective about the impact of gang activities in NYC. Well he may have missed one or two gangs of interested including the dangerous 215th street gang. Yes, we were ruthless thrill seekers, hell bent on getting into trouble and causing “agita” for our parents. For the uninformed, agita is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “An Italian-American word for heartburn, acid indigestion, an upset stomach or, by extension, a general feeling of upset.” Yep, our gang was a regular source of “agita” for our parents.

We were a small gang, only 4 regular members, which was probably good as if there were more of us, the trouble would have been out of control. Four evil doers, criminals just waiting to happen. Besides myself, there was Mike, my brother, the quiet one. Tom, our friend from around the corner, the one with access to the explosives. Then there was Tino, the Cuban kid from up the block. He did a lot of the dirty work but he squealed al lot it you leaned on him just a little. The following is a list of a few of our escapades. This is not a complete summary of everything that we did, I ain’t no stool pigeon, but is just a taste of the mischief we got into.

When skateboarding was becoming the rage, we built our own from boards and taken-apart metal skates and found the nearest sidewalk hill to go down. Unfortunately for the man who lived in one of the apartments, the metal wheels made a terrible racket on the sidewalks and sidewalk cracks. This was especially disruptive when you worked all night and slept during the day and were skateboarding right outside your bed room window. He would regularly open the window to ask, plead, demand and then yell at the top of his lungs for us to leave. We only heard him when he yelled. Parental agita.

Growing up in Queens, we had a house that was built on two house lots so it had a big backyard. My dad built us a small fort, backed by storage shed. We would climb up a tree onto the top of the shed where we would hurl epitaphs, dirt bombs and eventually fire crackers. Parental agita.

Tom lived up the street and we often retreated to his house for board games on summer afternoons. His dad looked like a Mafia soldier, fallen off a charm bracelet, and his rough voice scared me. When we made too much noise he would send us outside to prowl around his yard. This included peeking into neighbor’s windows to watch them do housework in a semi clothed or rather unclothed fashion. She would yell and pull down her shade. Paretal agita.

Now Tom had great access to stuff. He had an older brother, much older and lots of “cousins”. Invariably this meant that during the summer we would get access to high quality fireworks – fire crackers, cherry bombs and M-80’s, not just the little kiddies sparklers, we had explosives. Tom also taught us the trick of the smoldering rope, whose end could be used to light said explosives. So here are the four of us, running around the neighborhood with smoking, smoldering lengths of rope. Nothing was safe in our presence. We blew up model cars and boats, garbage cans, tin cans, plastic cups and bowls. All just to watch them fly. One time we were spotted by someone while blowing stuff up and he yelled at us, the “guys with the big fuse in your hands.” We ran into basement of our home and hid out for a while but we were lucky that time. Parental agita.

Finally, we had a little wood stove in our basement. My dad would burn some wood scraps in it, to help warm up and dry out the basement as well as get rid of scrap wood. Well when he was not around we took control of the incinerator business. If it was flammable, we stuffed it inside and burned it. Later found out that aresol cans held flammable liquids and sprayed them into the stove. How we did not blow ourselves, the house or the stove apart, I do not know. Parental agita once again.

I promise there will be more installments about the exploits of the 215th Street gang!

June 12, 2010

PenguinPolozza: A brief history of music in my life Part 4: Long May You Run…

(On the right hand column is a Playlist music player which has some of the songs I will mention in this series. Feel free to play them in the background as you read, for the very popular multimedia effect)

As I enter into this portion of my adult life, music still has a special place in my life. I can remember as a college student wondering what I would be listening to when I got old. I was na├»ve enough to think that old adults couldn’t listen to the type of music I liked. So I guessed it would be Lawrence Welk for me. But as I got older and continued to like the music I did, I began to realize there were no limits, no one to tell me what was right or wrong musically. So maybe because I think they are smart and with it or maybe because their youth helps to keep me young at heart, the most influential people for music right now are my two kids – CollegeBoy and MillieJupiter.

When CB was in his early teens, we got an Xbox and played “Tiger Woods Golf” The sound track was mesmerizing for the two of us and included songs by Coldplay, Ash and Snow Patrol. MJ also liked Ash and so we found albums by these groups and listen to them for hours at a time. Sure, there were more but that sound track really became the soundtrack of our growing together as a family. CB added an album by a group called Fort Minor which taught me a great deal about rap music. Generally that is not something I like but this group was different. They had melody and they told stories and some of the songs could actually bring tears to your eyes as they talked about family and city life and issues unbounded. CB always seems to be on the cutting edge of music. He was into singer/songwriter stuff with people like Gavin Degraw long before that was popular on the radio. He just seemed to find things and get us all to listen. We didn’t always like it but we always were aware of stuff long before everyone else.

On the other hand, MJ liked a lot of the music that I did, like Steely Dan. I guess because she heard so much of it growing up. Her tastes are a lot different than mine but there have been two things she likes listening to that made a mark on me. The first was My Chemical Romance, the other is American Idol runner up last year, Adam Lambert. Now, understand that when MJ gets into something, she REALLY gets into it. It was non-stop My Chem for months and months. When Adam came along, she joined “Glambert” nation and has yet to look back. What I learned from her is the simple joy of listening to something you like and not worrying or being concerned about what others around might think or say. She enjoys her music, I like what she listens to but I love that she is unafraid of her opinions. It was the same for me with CollegeBoy and Fort Minor. I can’t imagine saying 5 years ago that I would like some rap group but he made it ok to listen and to like.

Thank you to the both of you for helping me feel young inside all over again.

June 11, 2010

A Book Review – Bill Bryson “A Short History of Almost Everything”

I do not read enough anymore. That bothers me. When we went on a cruise a couple of years ago I read 5 books in 9 days and enjoyed every minute of them. Not just the books themselves but the process of reading. As I contemplate retirement I imagine having time on my hands. Time I used to spend working. Time I used to spend watching TV aimlessly. Plus, I want to keep the brain matter supple and vigorous. Thus I hatch a plan in my mind to read more. We cancel cable, which helps but Yankee games are numerous roadblocks. I need to find something to capture my imagination again. I “waste” 60 minutes each day commuting to and from work now, listening to sports radio and I can feel the IQ points dripping out of my ears. I decide to try some “learning” books – not fiction, something where I can appreciate the information. I find a couple of audio books – Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. I like space, I like science and these are imagination catchers for sure. I begin with Hawking, mistake one as his stuff though interesting is WAY over my head. I’m struggling with this, fighting the urge for “sports talk all the time” when MillieJupiter tells me about this Bryson guy and how entertaining the book is. It is all that and more!

If ever a book was written that could be considered a text for life as we know it, Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Almost Everything” is it. Beginning with the very instant of the Big Bang that spawned our universe, to our present society, Bryson walks us through the billions of eons with a grace and determination I have not experienced before. He takes very complex scientific thoughts and makes them understandable. For example in just a couple of paragraphs he explains Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to me in such a way as to be better understood than ever in my life. He explains the development of scientific fields like chemistry, geology, paleontology and physics in ways to make the understanding of them fun and interesting. And, along the way he gives a huge helping of the people and personalities of some of the greats, near greats and not so greats in their fields. From people buying specimens and claiming to find them, to the tasting of all manners of creatures for the sake of science, it is in there. Bryson is funny, educational and yet always clear about the things that are important to the discoveries in these widely variant fields.

My favorite parts (and MJ’s too) was the section on the earliest discoveries of man – Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, Java Man, Lucy and all the intermediates in between. I didn’t realize that there dozens of these type discoveries which tell us that many represent lines of humanity that ended without flourishing. Also, as mentioned above, the humanity that Bryson adds to these famous names through his quips and stories and eccentricities (like the anthropologist who liked to do field work in the nude) are help with even the driest of stories.

A couple of final notes. I know a book is good when I start looking to see how much is left to read or listen too, dreading the ending because the book is over. That is the way it was with this book. I did not want it to end. As the final chapter approached I found myself hoping that it would go on. Because of this I have gone out and gotten several of his other books, in the hopes my attention will once more be riveted.

I read this book by listening to it in my car one the way to and from work. I know there is discussion in certain circles as to whether I am reading the book or not. In the end, I will have a better understanding of the world around me, I will have learned a great deal and I would have been entertained in a nice way. What more can one ask from a book.

June 10, 2010

We made a bomb; We were da bomb; We were bombed in more ways than one

I recent read this article, which detailed a prank pulled by University of Utah Senior Newspaper Editors and it reminded my of my own college prank career back about 35 years ago. They were impressive in their own right and I am proud to have participated in this great college tradition. What follows are details of 3 such endeavors.

We made a bomb – What do you get when you take 5 – 6 bored college students, give them duct tape, plastic containers and some old fireworks? You have the makings of a bomb. So here is the story. We took about 15 M-80’s apart for the gunpowder inside and poured it into a plastic film canister which we then packed tightly. The last thing added was a cherry bomb with its fuse poked through a hole in the canister top. We then wrapped it up with about half a roll of duct tape until it was about the size of a tennis ball. We spread out to various rooms along an inner courtyard while one of the chosen ones went into a darkened men’s room. Around midnight everyone was in position, we could see the glowing tip of the cigarette. The fuse was lit with it and the “package” was tossed into the courtyard where it promptly went out. After a frantic search, it was located and brought back into the bathroom launching pad. Light, toss and wait. After a few seconds a blinding flash was seen and the entire building shook. Later on people on the other side of the campus reported seeing the flash and feeling the rumble. Success!

We were ‘da bomb- Our college was alcohol free which meant that you had to be creative in how you got your alcohol to your room. Various people had various methods and alcohol options but generally the rule was not well enforced. We figured we had it made and developed a delivery system involving envelopes with money, an enterprising, of age, senior with a car, and the “Milk Man” was born. How many quarts of “milk” did you want and delivery times were set up. This went on for months until there was a great slip up. Word got back to the Dean of Discipline and he interrupted a “milk drinking” party. Although no “milk” was in sight, he could smell it. We were all called for disciplinary review and as punishment, repainted the school tennis courts, all three of them. Maybe 15 hours for each of us in community service. Not so successful.

We were bombed, in more ways than one- Again, college students are a creative lot. Give us a tall building, overlooking an entrance door with a fickle key and you have the makings of the bombing run prank. This consisted of several very large water balloons, set in a window sill, waiting for a late night returnee. Balloons were dropped from 3rd or 4th floor window and hilarity ensues. That is until someone gets really, really angry and comes running up the stairway to find you and follows the trail of water on the floor and carpet right to your door which he proceeds to pound on, threatening to pound you in much the same way. We barely escaped but were much more careful in later attempts at free showers. Semi-successful except for the almost getting beaten up part.

I am happy to report that even with all this fooling around, I was able to maintain my D average for freshman year which almost resulted in my being expelled. CollegeBoy can verify the grades as he saw my report cards from that year. I did manage to get it together and make honors by senior year however.

June 8, 2010

Vacation Day Camp - P.S. 169

(I sent a draft of this to my brother Michael and he added some additional notes which I will italicize and bold for the reader

Way back, way, way back, when I was in grammar school, the NYC school system instituted an institution called Vacation Day Camp. In this, public schools around the city opened their doors during the summer, offering adult supervision, with teen counselors for a recreation type experience. My brother Michael and I were dutifully packed off each day of the summer to a local public school to attend. Our mother did not choose the closest school but rather opted for a 15 minute ride to a “fancier” part of town. I suspect the feeling was that that school, PS 169 in Bay Terrace, would have better facilities.

There were maybe 120 kids registered each summer, with maybe 60 attending on any given day. The school building was open and we had access to a game room with pool, ping-pong and table game areas for board games and puzzles. There were two art classrooms too; one for the younger finger painting crowd and the other for us more advanced clay ashtray and woven pot holders makers. There was a gym for rainy days and a large concrete playground with 2 baseball fields painted on it, one for younger kick ball games and the other, a full size softball field. Out the back door in the gym was a hole in a fence that gave us access to a playground with another softball field with a huge wall in left field, and a weird fence configuration in center field, our own Fenway Park if you will. There also was a small child playground there with monkey bars and slides and sand boxes. (Mike note: This I do not remember, though I do recall the back door in the gym.)

Our mom or grandmother packed our lunch every day, mostly forgettable fare with one exception – a SunDew Orange drink. I tried to look this up and got a few references but little information. It came in a carton, 1 pint I would guess, and my family bought them by the gross and froze them. It would keep your lunch cold and still have some ice crystals by noontime. Also we would eat them at home like an Italian ice, splitting the top open and eating it with a spoon. Boy the memories that brings back! (Mike note: Occasionally we would meet our mother at the public park at the top of the hill behind the school to eat lunch. It seemed like a great escape as typically you had to stay on the school grounds for lunch.)

Our first year at camp was when I was about 12, Mike 10. We played games all day, ran around the gym, played softball and kickball. There was a usual crowd of boys that it was easy to fall in with, the everyday guys, the VDC mafia, our own Bay Terrace Posse. In those days that meant you sometimes gave some lip to the adult supervision crew but generally we just hung out together doing the camp thing or trying to get hit by lightning. (Mike had not read this account from my earlier post. His memory of this event is eerily similar, just a slightly different strike location. Notice how similar our descriptions of the event are. I don’t think we have talked about this in 25 years or more! Mike note: We came close on day while playing softball. A storm came up suddenly, and a bolt of lightning hit the basketball backboard conveniently situated behind the shortstop position. We all broke the land speed record for getting off the open softball field and into the school! We sat on the floor in the hallway not sure what had happened. After the storm passed we investigated the backboard and there was a large section of paint missing and some charred paint remains. A close call to say the least.)

I really don’t remember any of us getting in serious trouble, even when we snuck out of the school to go to the other baseball diamond or walked a couple of blocks to a deli that had cheap drinks. It was a different time then for sure.

I mean, think about it. I cannot imagine a better summer than getting taxied to place everyday where we could be hanging out with a bunch of friends, playing sports and games and learning about life. It was at camp I learned that if you wrote to MLB players, they might send you something. One summer I got an autographed baseball from Ed Charles of the NY Mets. There was a weird signature on it, from a rookie with the Mets that year, a Nolan Ryan. Now before you go getting all “that would be worth so much money now” on me remember that the balls signatures faded over time, it was not kept in any pristine environment and there was no documentation. Years later I had it appraised in its condition it was worth less than $50 so I gave it to a friend who collected baseball memorabilia. I also learned at VDC that when you hit 3 homeruns for the VDC traveling baseball team, everyone in camp knew about it when you got back. Unfortunately for me, I was too dumb to understand fully the social ramifications of this (girls). (Mike note: The traveling baseball/softball team was another way of getting off the school grounds, an “official” way of leaving you might say. I do not recall how we got to other schools, but I do recall one school where we played ball not on black top but on loose ciders. We always came back to VDC with at least one player injured, sometime pretty seriously if you slid or dove for a ball.)

I went to VDC 169 for about 4 years in a row which was interrupted after my first high school year summer when I had to go to summer school for Latin – YES LATIN! I bet you didn’t know I was fluent in dead languages huh? After that, I was too old. I don’t remember if Michael kept going and I wonder about his memories. I’ll try to get some from him and post them here too.

These are some pictures of the school from Google Earth images I captured and photoshopped. No campers were hurt in this photo manipulation…

A view from Google Maps above the school. You can see the schoolyard where the lightning hit, the school building, gym and the public park behind the gym.

A street view of the school. It does not seemed to have changed much except the baseball diamonds paint is gone, replaced by tennis courts or small soccer fields.

June 5, 2010

Thunder and Lightning

Boy do I like a good thunderstorm. The sound, the fury, the electricity in the air (and I mean that both ways!) all add to an extraordinary experience. Wikipedia tells us that “There are some 16 million lightning storms in the world every year.” That is a lot of awesomeness. We had a good one this past Friday night, woke me up around 2 am and lasted for just a short while. Sometimes I wish they would last longer.

I like watching them build, I like watching them move in, the wind increasing, the leaves flipped over on trees, the shower curtain of rain that comes across the area as it passes. I love how sometimes thunderstorms break the heat and humidity and there is a smell of fresh air in the breeze that remains when they are gone. Just everything.

When I was growing up, my grandmother was deathly afraid of these types of storms. Even the slightest rumble in the distance brought her muttering some Italian phrase evoking some saint to protect us. I have a friend whose dog was so deathly afraid of the storms that at first rumble he would rap himself around the toilet and whimper until it was over. They even got him tranquilizers, yes, doggie downers, to try and help him with little success.

As a kid, I don’t think I was very afraid, preferring to see, listen and enjoy the storm. When I had my own family I tried to instill a sense of wonder and respect. Often we would sit on the covered back porch watching a storm move in and didn’t go inside until the cracks were right upon us. To this day I believe that both CollegeBoy and MillieJupiter enjoy storms, except when the internet or electricity goes out. Priorities people, please!

Now my close encounter story. When I was a young teen, every summer we went to vacation day camp done by NYC in some public schools (I will do a post about that experience soon). It was hot and muggy in the city but the camp gave us a place to go and recreate while being supervised. Each afternoon meant softball out in the cement schoolyard field. We played hours of softball each and every summer. What better life for a kid, huh? Anyway, one afternoon a storm was obviously moving in. Dark clouds, winds blowing dust around, heavy feeling in the air. We kept playing until some raindrops began to fall and the adult watching us stopped the game, had us gather the equipment and head back for the school. We had just started the 150 foot trek back when suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the fence pole surrounding the field. We were in a group, maybe 30 feet from the pole and after a second of awestruck silence, mouths agape, the group en masse, sprinted for the school building. (This reminds me of the adage – if your group is attacked by a bear in the woods, you do not have to be the fastest runner, just not the slowest…) Once inside we watched the storm for a while but no other strikes came close to us, the fence, or the school. Later that afternoon in the drying sun, a group of us went back to look at the fence. The paint was all gone or blistered for about 12 inches of the pole top, steel shining through, but no other poles were like that at all. A close call for sure. I can see the NY Post headline: “Parent sue NYC Board of Ed for letting kids play in the rain!” I could have been famous.

I understand lightning in New Mexico can be spectacular. I am so looking forward to watching storms develop there.

(Lightning over Las Cruces / Google image)

June 4, 2010

Buddy Boy Blew it!

I am a baseball fan, big time. This will surprise no one. As such I have an opinion about the recent perfect game / not perfect game that occurred in Detroit on June 2nd. This should surprise no one. I’m going to tell you my opinion on this. Hey, I do a podcast and write a blog, of course I have an opinion and I’m going to share it.

First, Jim Joyce, umpire and supposed evil doer. He is a person and he made a mistake. Mistakes do happen, lots of umpires make them but when they make one on a national stage like in a playoff game or World Series or when both ESPN and MLB TV have joined in coverage of a game live, then the magnitude is intensified, the hot lights of fame and history begin to scorch. Look, he made a mistake; he checked the replay, realized his error and then apologized profusely, expressed sorrow at the bad call and actually was genuinely emotional the next day when he returned to the place of his mistake. He did everything right except make a good call but his grace and aplomb under the intense pressure and scrutiny is exemplary.

Armando Galarraga has been a fringe major league pitcher who was on the doorstep of immortality in baseball terms. Perfect games are rare and his performance during the game, after the mistake was made and following the game in interviews and actions, was unbelievably strong, a lesson for us all. In my mind, he may now be even more famous as the pitcher who was robbed of his perfect chance yet he should be known and held up on a pedestal as an example to us all of grace under pressure, showing compassion and understanding and maintaining his dignity when many others lose theirs. Contrast his smile and getting back to work in the game to George Brett’s dugout explosion so many years ago and tell me which is the better role model for our kids AND us.

Finally Bud Selig, Baseball commissioner. Well, he blew it. He blew it big time. He had a chance to hit a grand slam in this situation and instead bunted into a double play. Instead of showing that the human element is important to baseball and correcting a bad mistake, he allows it so stand, for the umpire to take the heat, for the player to lose his moment in the sun because of a presedent he was afraid to set, yet has already been set many times before. Brett’s none home run to home run, Haddux’s perfect game to not perfect game, trades rescinded for the good of baseball, drug suspensions, all examples of baseball stepping in and fixing errors. Look, the player was out at first base. The umpire admitted such, the Tigers admitted such, the batter himself admitted such yet Buddy Boy failed to act, instead saying that this will cause him to look at the use of instant replay further. And here in lies the double play. Bad enough he popped up the bunt but he compounds it by talking about the human element in baseball and mistakes, and then offers to review the call for more TV cameras, video tape machines, computers, maybe an eye in the sky to correct mistakes from happening in the future. It could have been simple. Selig could have just said “Baseball is a great game played by and umpired by people. Occasionally a mistake is made of such proportion that we need to intervene. Jim Joyce admitted he was in error and so I am going to do the most human of all things possible in our game. We are going to forgive this mistake. I am going to rule that Mr. Galarraga effort be judged to be a perfect game, a masterpiece of excellence and as such Baseball will hold both Mr. Galarraga and Mr. Joyce up as examples of grace and humanity to us all in this emotional time.”

Simple. human forgiving. A lesson for us all. Taught by Armando Galarraga, missed by Bud Selig.

June 3, 2010

The Tandem Story: Epilogue

So today is the day I let everyone know who wrote which paragraph. But just before I do this, a couple of comments. I thought it would be easy to determine whether a male or female, young or older person wrote a paragraph but in reality it was not. I’m note sure if this hypothesis was itself a gender bias on my part or testimony to the general writing skills of those who participated. Overall I think the story came out very well and I have all the writers to thank. I am also wondering if we should try it again. It was fun following the story and even more fun seeing the finished product. Feel free to let me know if you would be interested in doing another and if enough people are, I will send another story out for a spin.

And now, the moment you have been waiting for – who wrote what…(for reference, the story is printed in the previous post if you want to put a name to a paragraph!)
A. Me
B. Pam, a co-worker, Yankee fan in the heart of Red Sox nation and friend
C. Brigid, college student, Manhattan Man’s daughter, the DW’s niece and occasional podcaster
D. Dan, good friend of Maqz and loyal podcast listener
E. Mary, the DW, who insists that hers was the pivotal paragraph
F. EJ, one of the DW’s nephews, boat builder, furniture maker and Brooklynite
G. Steve aka Maqz
H. Dylan, aka CollegeBoy, our college student son
I. Kevin, aka Manhattan Man, Denali, Mark Twain…
J. Me again
So, there you have it. Great job done by all. Remember that if enough people are interested, we will try it again…Thanks to all…