Monday, December 31, 2007

Open gates, open doors

I've been visiting Sandy Hook for at least 10 years now, and I pretty much figured that I'd found everything there is to explore. When I started off on my jaunt today, I figured this visit would be dedicated mostly to walking the tideline and maybe spending a half hour or so on the birding platform on North Beach. When I grabbed the binoculars from my closet, I also pulled out the camera and my new videocamera, figuring that I could get some shots of the tide or something.

Little was I to know that I'd run into several open doors.

Driving in, I stopped by the Nike exhibit -- a fenced in Nike Ajax and sample operations trailer like the one inside the base down the road. It's actually across the road from the launch facility. While the launch area was off limits, the gate in the fence around the exhibit wasn't locked, so I was able to get some close-ups of the trailer interior, albeit from the outside. I made a quick stop at the base, too, to do a quick video travelogue of the buildings and equipment one can see from outside the fence.

A little farther up the road, I stopped, for some reason, at another narrow parking area, and found that a wooden gate across the far end of the driveway was open. Seeing nobody around and no signs warning to the contrary, I drove through to find several picnic areas I'd never known were even there. They reminded me of the camping areas at national parks out west -- sheltered picnic benches, a grill and maybe a water spigot. Pictures of Boy Scouts cleaning up the Nike base were posted on a nearby bulletin board. That made me wonder if I could hike from there to the edge of the base. I parked the car beyond the gate and walked on in.

All I found was a clearing with some sort of structure surrounded by railroad ties. When I got back to the road, someone had shut and padlocked the gate I'd driven through earlier. That was a close call.

At the very tip of the hook, I stopped by Nine Gun battery, a massive artillery staging structure built in 1902 and now decaying in the ocean air. It's probably about a quarter-mile long, stretching along North Beach. Long ago the Park Service encircled it with a five-foot fence and posted signs warning explorers to stay out, but I'd heard stories of people finding ways of getting in to wander the corridors.

Oddly enough, I came upon another gate, much like the one for the backyard of my childhood home. No lock, no blocking of any sort beyond the sign reading "EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS AREA CLOSED." I checked the latch, which moved easily in my hand. I could just nudge it open, push the gate forward and walk right in. The doorways and stairs of the battery invited me in, but I thought better of exploring solo. My luck, I'd get swallowed up by it all.

My last destination was a quick ride along Officers' Row, the gorgeous old housing that's mostly been left to decay on the bayshore side of the Hook. One of the buildings has been made into a 40's era home museum, and some of the smaller ones house non-profit organizations focused on environmental issues. The others are simply sealed shut, inviting the curious to climb the rickety porches to peer in at the peeling tin ceilings and plaster walls.

Out of habit, I gazed at the houses as I passed each in turn. Then I saw an open front door. Temptation.

I pulled around to the service road and parked behind one of the houses. After a short walk I found the open door. It blew open with a passing gust, and then fell back, inviting me to approach, but I was a bit apprehensive of what might be inside, and that the porch would cave under my weight. Besides, now that the door was open, I could see from the sidewalk that it only led to a vestibule. The inner door was most likely locked, anyway.

Like a good scout, I took note of the house number and reported the situation at the Park Ranger office. Some invitations may be best accepted at a later time, when conditions have improved.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Campaign cease fire: an idea whose time has come

Columnist Fran Wood, in today's Newark Star-Ledger, gives voice to what we're all thinking: with nearly a year before we elect a new president, most voters are already weary of the campaign. And perhaps the candidates, in their own ways, feel the same way.

Fran goes on to note that Rudy Giuliani's recent run to the hospital was just the result of his body saying "enough already." Hey, I know what it's like to go full tilt for days or weeks, only to wake up one day with a crushing headache that won't let me leave my bed. It's the body's way of saying, "hey, bonehead, slow down!" Fran opines that maybe sleep deprivation isn't the best thing to encourage in the future leader of the free world, whoever he or she may ultimately be.

So, we're weary of them, they're probably weary of the campaign but won't admit it. Why don't we all take a vacation?

Hey: it could work. After, say, ten days of campaigning, all of the candidates could call a two-day cease fire. Nobody makes personal appearances. Nobody does media interviews or issues announcements. Nobody takes cheap shots at anyone else. The media caravan reports on something else for two days, like the celebri-trash of the moment. The news shows won't have any problem filling the airtime. As one of the news directors at the Rutgers student radio station used to say, if you can't find any news, go make some up.

Everyone comes back relaxed -- tan, rested and ready for the next phase. Ultimately, the time off might give everyone the chance to think a bit more about what's being said and what we all really believe in. At the very least, we'll get some relief from the constant, incessant buzz.

Friday, December 28, 2007

"Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight."

- Eleanor Roosevelt
What's old is new again

Seen at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY. A bit ironic, don't you think?

Are you playing square, W?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Festivus...

Seen in Times Square on Christmas Eve. One could only hope they didn't intend what this looks like.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Asbury Park, again

Dark, cloudy day today -- one of those days when you sense it could start raining any minute. What better time to go down the shore?

Choices were Avalon, Shellpile, Sandy Hook and Asbury Park. So I took AP, wondering how far the resurrection of the Casino had progressed since my last visit in September. Oh, and I was wondering if the Metropolitan Hotel had met the wrecking ball yet.

The Metropolitan is one of those old high-class seaside hotels, 180 sleeping rooms, a nice restaurant, lounge with entertainment, the whole nine yards. Like much of the rest of historic Asbury Park, it's fallen into hard times, having its share of failed renovation attempts, blocked by corrupt, bribe-seeking local politicians.

My exploring buddy and I had had loose plans to check out the exterior a few weeks ago, when I'd read about the impending demolition, but the trip never came to be. I honestly expected the place to be reduced to rubble, so I was a bit surprised to see it still standing.

Given that the ominous weather and general desolation of the place made me a bit nervous, I just took a few shots from the car. Check out this site for much better photos than I was able to get.

Despite everything, the boardwalk was a bit creepy, too, and the wind off the ocean was cutting, so I didn't stay too long. Looks as if they're still doing work inside the carousel house, but nothing is going on within the rest of the Casino property. Weirdly enough, the pedestrian walkway is still open; in fact, lamps have been installed to up-light some of the architectural detail of the interior plaster.

Only a few people were on the boardwalk, and all but one of the storefronts were shuttered. A newish restaurant next to the Casino has limited hours over the winter but is still open for the hearty folk who walk or run the boards for exercise. Business wasn't very good today.

After strolling the boardwalk and taking pictures for about ten minutes or so, I decided enough was plenty and went back to my car.

I stopped in the revitalized shopping district on Cookman Avenue, which consists largely of antique stores and cutely-named restaurants and coffee houses. There were a few people window shopping, more having lunch, but still, I wondered how the establishments were holding up financially.

I found a place that has, among other things, a vintage framed Two Guys bag for sale, plus some fun tchotchkes, tableware, etc. Chatted a bit with the shopkeeper, who told me that foot traffic is kind of uneven but promising. I mentioned that I visit Asbury periodically to take pictures of the Casino, and on his asking how the boardwalk was today, I replied, "Creepy."

"Well, that's what you're looking for, right?"

Gotta love a kindred spirit.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A working class cat is a fine thing to be (be bop)

An article in today's New York Times chronicled the phenomenon of bodega cats, the blue-collar felines who keep their shops free of vermin. As anyone who's lived or worked in a large city knows, where there's food, there's inevitably a rodent, so a good mouser is worth his or her weight in gold. And when compared to the cost and inconvenience of exterminators, the investment in kitty litter, veterinary care and some canned food is minimal. Felix comes in, rats disappear. It's that simple.

The New York Department of Health feels otherwise. Apparently, where they're concerned, having a cat in a corner market or a restaurant is as bad as having rats. Fines for having any kind of animal range from $300 to $2000 or more.

I can understand some of the reluctance to have a free-range cat in a restaurant kitchen or behind the deli counter, but the bodega issue doesn't make sense to me. The equations are simple:

Food = rats, inevitably
Food + exterminators = rats that crawl off and die in inconvenient places

The question isn't whether there are rats, it's where are they and how long will it take them to return between pest control visits. No matter what you do, they're a fact of life for anyone who runs a food establishment in New York.

So the choices seem to be:

  1. Ban the cats and constantly deal with rats gnawing at food packages and leaving God knows what around to spread disease.
  2. Let the cats do what comes naturally.
Anyone who's seen the video of the Greenwich Village Taco Bell rat infestation knows the answer. There, the rats looked about as big as cats and scurried around freely after the store closed for the night. One might wonder what three or four felines would have been able to accomplish there. Fast food franchisees might even want to consider rotating crews of cats to patrol their stores once a week or so.

I don' t know about you, but given the option of seeing a cat in a restaurant, or a mouse, I'll always choose Morris over Mickey. So maybe the Department of Health can come up with a compromise: let the cats stay, but require them to be tested on a regular basis for the disease and parasites rats carry. Their inspectors can check the cat's health records when they come to rate the establishment. And perhaps it will get a few more homeless animals out of the shelters and off the streets.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Help! I'm being held captive in a forced-labor Chinese fortune cookie factory!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Calling Sister Bertrille!

Apparently the latest extreme sport is flying. Like Batman, but without the Batcopter. Just a winglike jumpsuit, helmet and a parachute for a smooth landing.

My exploring buddy sent me a video of guys doing this ... saying I should give it a try. And the very next day, the New York Times runs a story on it, featuring a practitioner of the sport who is planning to do a flight sans parachute, landing on his belly. Two mentions in 24 hours. Must be something to it.

Now, is it just me, or do these guys look like the Flying Nun? You remember her. She was the 90 pound novitiate who discovered that the wacky wimple of her order had special aerodynamic qualities. It would explain why Sally Field is hawking osteoporosis meds: gotta have strong bones to land on your feet from an altitude of 500 feet.

In the interest of disclosure, I've done some skydiving, and had one ill-advised hang-gliding experience, and while the experiences were very, uh, interesting, I think I can say with some certainty that the best thing about having done both is that I can now say I've done them. After the third jump, I decided that I'd tempted fate enough, and maybe I should move on to something else meaningless and stupid. Like sailing from Portmagee to a speck of an island in the Atlantic in a 20 foot fishing boat.

But flying without a chute -- or real wings -- is going way far over the edge. Literally and figuratively. Unless your name is Rocket J. Squirrel.

Some would say that any of it is a bit reckless, but in the hierarchy of foolhardiness, skydiving doesn't even rank. First, it has some useful applications, i.e. surviving a plane wreck, landing behind enemy lines. In practice as an extreme sport, it has its advantages: you know you're headed in one direction -- down, more or less -- and the chute is just there to slow your descent. The necessary skill is the ability to slow down enough from terminal velocity to land without creating a crater.

The actual horizontal-type flying is a bit more dangerous, because you take gravity out of the equation. In other words, wings are there to keep you airborne. The potential for hitting something has just grown to include things you can fly into as well as things you could fall down onto. Danger in 3-D. How appetizing.

Having been affixed to a giant wing and towed to 2000 feet by an ultralight plane (read: giant wing with lawnmower engine and beach chair attached), I have a little insight into what it's like to fly at bird level and see the landscape for miles. It's pretty cool, if the thermals haven't kicked up for the day.

Flying over and next to cliffs is a bit different. Way too much opportunity to do a Wile E. Coyote into a cliff wall. And this guy wants to do it without a parachute, landing belly-first on the ground like a plane with malfunctioning landing gear.

Sorry - I'll pass. Even the video makes me a little oozhy.

It does remind me, though, that I have to schedule something stupid. It's been too long.

Friday, November 23, 2007

My turn en pointe

Shortly after the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) opened in Newark, the American Ballet Theater staged a series of holiday season performances of Cinderella. As is customary, they put the call out for supernumeraries - extras - to fill the stage at the needed times. Since those roles require no dance skills, the troupe saves the cost of paid performers and takes walk-ons. I'm not a big ballet aficionado, but since I was working in Newark, anyway, I went to check it out.

The "audition" was little more than lining up in height order. The children needed to demonstrate a little grace since they'd be on stage as the Seasons, but beyond that, we adults had no idea what criteria we were being judged on. I Hope I Get It, indeed.

I was chosen as an "extra super" (an extra extra, as it were) who would participate in performances only if one of the other adults didn't show up. We were required to be there for several rehearsals and were expected to arrive an hour before each performance, regardless of when we appeared in the program. Most of us appeared only in the wedding scene, the last three minutes of the show. That meant a lot of waiting around in the large group dressing room upstairs, watching the show on closed-circuit TV.

Being backstage was a pretty cool experience. I got an up-close view of the dancers' athleticism and the hard work they put into their craft. It was also fun to watch the reactions of the little girls who were chosen to be the Seasons in the show. Looking up to the dancers with awe, they went totally over the moon when some of the ballerinas gave them their battered toe shoes.

One of the things I learned was that traditionally, the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella are played by men, I guess to ensure that they're ugly women. The dressing room for those dancers was right next to ours, so we'd clear the way for them in the hall when they'd run between scenes to change costumes. They were pretty nice guys, happy to chat with the ballet groupies among the extras.

On the Sunday of the show's run, we had three or four hours between performances, and while several of the supers went home for an early dinner, I chose to hang out at the PAC. As I sipped my clam chowder, I suddenly heard random shouting and groans, and then progressively louder audio from a football game. Sticking my head out the dressing room door, I found the wicked stepsisters watching a playoff game on the closed-circuit TV in the hallway. That would have been fine, but it was just a little weird to see two extraordinarily ugly "women" wearing heavy rouge and stripped down to their bloomers, cursing the referee. I've seen a lot of weird things at football games, but that one takes the cake.

Anyway... ultimately, I appeared in about a dozen performances since one of the "regular" supers decided she was too good to show up at the appointed hour before the curtain rose. For ten days, once a night and twice on each weekend day, I stood two people away from the Fairy Godmother during the wedding scene. I never got up the nerve to ask her to help me find my prince charming, but then, glass slippers tend to cause blisters.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Under the pre-text

A recent article on bemoaned the death of e-mail in favor of text messaging. When you consider that e-mail as a medium has been around for over 20 years now, I guess it's not surprising. Nevertheless, I posit that we've still got some time to go before it goes the way of 8-track tapes.

People are apt to say that this is another one of those youth-driven trends. However, I've been noticing with greater frequency that middle-aged folks are doing it, too. It became most evident to me when I started dating again. At first I thought it was something the men had learned from their teenagers, but then I got a number of texts from a man with no kids. Come to think of it, he had the maturity level of a 17 year old, so it made sense.

Though I do text at times, I'm still trying to reason the whole thing out. Yes, texting is useful when you're in a place where it would be rude to talk on the phone: business meetings, funerals, group therapy sessions. It's also helpful for quick reminders: "pick up milk," "meet me at 8," or, in the case of a text a former boyfriend got from his ex-wife, "you continue to be a complete asshole." It does have a sense of immediacy that's lost when you step away from your PC, but I just don't see it totally replacing e-mail as a mode of communication. You can't really get a good story across in 150 characters or less (well, the ex's ex did). And those little buttons are tough on your thumbs.

Going the next step, I'm totally mystified as to why some people have entire conversations by text. For God's sake, they have a phone in their hands! They could just dial the number and talk, which is much quicker than the back and forth with thumbs flying. And texting while driving brings it to a new level of absurdity. Potentially lethal absurdity. If it's really that important, pull over and make the call.

So what is it that people are avoiding? If we're so loathe to actually talk, or to share more than a dozen words at a time, maybe we need to reconsider our relationships.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Spy vs. Spy

A squadron of nuclear weapons ringed major U.S. cities during the Cold War, undetected by the vast majority of Americans. Until the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the early 70's, the last defense America had against Soviet incursion was the Nike Ajax missile, and then the nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules. And many Nike bases were located in suburban neighborhoods, not always or entirely known by the residents of the split-level ranches nearby.

Most of the bases have been dismantled, but there's still one in pretty decent shape at Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook in New Jersey. It's within the Gateway National Recreation Area, which was created in 1974 after the Department of Defense decommissioned it and transferred ownership to the National Park Service.

I had the opportunity to check out the base a few weeks ago. There's just one missile on display, unarmed, and the golfball-shaped covers aren't on the radar platforms anymore, but the control centers are still there. About the size of a small Ryder rental truck, they could easily be pulled up and trucked to another location, just like an old-time diner. Oh, and they're incredibly ugly and depressing inside, kind of like a submarine.

The Park Service is allegedly working to stabilize and restore the base, but right now they're letting visitors check out the trailers and other parts of the base in their current, crappy condition. Though the electronics have been removed, you can still get a sense of the technology that once tracked and controlled nuclear weaponry. It's pretty wild to think that there's more powerful circuitry in my pocket PC than there was in that whole set up. In fact, our guide pulled out a huge floppy disc, the older, bigger brother to the 5-1/4 floppies I remember from my early computing days. Oh, and while there are still plenty of switches and dials on the control panels, someone thoughtfully removed "the button." I guess you can never be too careful.

I also got a kick out of an old phone booth on the base. It still had a rotary phone with a 201 number, though that area code hasn't been accurate in nearly 20 years. It seemed weirdly out of place, a relic of normalcy in a kind of surreal doomsday environment. My thoughts turned to the scene in the satirical Dr. Strangelove , when the one sane officer left on the base is reduced to using a pay phone to contact the Pentagon during an attack ... and Ma Bell won't spot him the 55 cents for the long-distance call. You have to wonder if the Fort Hancock phone booth is there for the one sane officer left... And, of course, there's always Maxwell Smart and the secret entrance to CONTROL. In any case, the Park Service is keeping it there for eventual restoration.

As I took a few snapshots, I realized that had I gotten into the base with a camera 40 years ago, I'd have landed in a military jail. Now photos of the equipment are posted here, for all to see, without any penalty to me. Maybe some Russian blogger like me has posted photos of nuke base phone booths, too. Glasnost.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The frost is on the pumpkin...

... the long pants are on the UPS delivery guys.

Well, the shorts had a good, long run this year.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Partly cloudy with a chance of shorts

It's been unusually warm lately in New Jersey. Not freakishly warm, just enough to mean you don't need a jacket most of the time, sometimes even at night. That's kind of strange for mid October.

At the same time, I've noticed that UPS drivers are still wearing their famous brown shorts at this late date. Now, as a much referenced article in the Onion joked a few years ago, many people believe that the start of spring is heralded by the first set of bare UPS knees they see.

Conversely, perhaps autumn is ushered in by the disappearance of said knees beneath a pair of trusty brown trousers. This year, though, it doesn't seem to be happening.

I've often wondered if there's some sort of corporate policy, an annual memo, perhaps, that tells the drivers to change from long pants to short. Maybe the memo didn't go out this fall. Or, maybe there's something more sinister going on.

Not to belabor this global warming thing, but in recent years we've seen and heard much about the indications of an environment in peril. Usually it's the polar ice cap. Sometimes it's tropical sea animals showing up in northern climes. Maybe now it's the UPS guys.

Maybe they know something we don't.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why not do it anyway?

Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize will certainly add more fuel to the global warming debate. You know, the war between the people who say it's going on and there's something we can do about it, and those who say it's all a bunch of hooey and climate change is all a part of the cycle of the earth's environment.

The thing that strikes me is that even if it is just a cycle (and I don't think that's the case), there's no harm in reducing pollution and conserving resources. No private citizen has a vested interest in having more pollution in the air. Major polluters, well, you can see that it costs them more to run clean operations than dirty, but that even seems a bit short sighted. After all, you gotta figure that your customer base will shrink a bit when you can buy shorefront property in Utah.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Don't just do something ... sit there!

My cat, like all cats, spends a lot of time virtually motionless. She'll either just lay on the living room windowsill, or curl up on the recliner or my bed. Sometimes she sprawls out on the parquet floor. And a lot of the time, she stares quite intently at some unknown spot in the distance.

Cats, more than most creatures, and certainly more than humans, don't have a need to be busy or occupied. They're perfectly happy to find a cozy spot or a nice sunbeam to lay within, and just let life pass until something (like a bird), gives them a reason to spring into action. Sometimes I like to think that they're trying to reason out some sort of Zen koan: where does the human go when she walks out the door?

In many ways, Hattie reminds me that we all need to stop and contemplate, just as much as we need to have activity and meet our daily obligations. In other words, sometimes those obligations need to include inactivity. We get so caught up in having to do something that doing nothing seems wasteful and unproductive, except maybe when we schedule it as part of a vacation. Many of us beat ourselves up about it. But sometimes maybe our bodies -- and our psyches -- force the rest time.

Other times it's the cat who forces us to slow down and just sit there. Sometimes they plant themselves in your lap and just won't get up.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gives you pause.

Earlier today a friend and I were IM-ing about some work issue or another, and as we digressed, she mentioned that she'd volunteered at Ground Zero yesterday, helping families preserve cherished items their loved ones had left behind that fateful day. Gave her pause, she said. For one thing, it really put into perspective the budget cutting stuff we were talking about. Put in context, a few bucks for a multi-billion dollar corporation didn't mean squat. Definitely isn't one of those things that you'd put in your obituary.

Now, I guess that's not all that surprising to hear. Life and death being more important than business -- it's a fairly common sentiment, any day of the year. Nonetheless, it got me thinking.

I've sat in countless business meetings where people avoid the really difficult dilemmas in favor of picking apart and "solving" the easier stuff. You know -- rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's a very human tendency that makes us feel more in control. The big issue, well, nobody could have fixed that, but at least we decided what color to paint the hallway!

When you think about it, though, even the toughest of the business dilemmas are a lot easier to suss out than the really important things in life. Maybe that's why so many people get so out of whack and lose balance in their lives.

Consider it. Figuring out how to shave a half million dollars off a billion dollar budget is a hell of a lot easier than finding the one true love of your life. And all of the chair swapping of some pointless office decentralization is phenomenally less messy than figuring out what you're meant to be doing with your life. And really, anything you run into during a typical day at the office is a lot simpler than living each day as honestly, ethically and authentically as you can. Perhaps that's why so many people avoid the real life stuff in favor of work.

I know I'm not saying anything all that profound, and certainly there are others who could say it a lot more powerfully than I. We've all heard the bromides about living each day to the fullest, and how many of us pledged to see September 11 as a lesson or a message to live more authentically? But six years later, how many of us truly have?

I guess it all comes down to courage. It's a lot easier to be the person some company pays you to be for 50 hours a week, or the person that your family or your friends or teachers say you should be, rather than the person you were born to be. It's sure a lot easier to adopt someone else's mistaken view of who you are, versus trying to discover for yourself.

Then again, maybe we need to be kinder to ourselves when we're trying to work it out. Growing takes time, and it does take courage: courage that often doesn't come easily. Stop making pronouncements and just be.

And hope for the best.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Does Al Gore approve?

A recent Newsweek article outlined Honda's plans to outpace the iconic Toyota Prius with a new generation hybrid rumored to be the world's most fuel efficient car when it arrives in 2009.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I own a Honda and have never owned another brand. Love 'em to death. They're reliable, they're low-emission, and they just make sense. And Honda engineers never stop trying to solve long range challenges that other manufacturers haven't yet conceived of. You have to appreciate that.

The interesting thing is that Honda had really bad timing when it came to hybrids. A few years back, they stopped making the CRX coupe and replaced it with the 60 mpg Insight. I checked one out -- it made my own bare-bones CRX look like a loaded Jaguar by comparison -- but you had to give them credit for the effort. They were first out of the gate in the US, and the Insight had a truly unique body profile. People, namely the automotive press, said it just looked weird. They didn't sell very many. It was truly a car ahead of its time.

Then they pulled back and decided to focus on hybrid-izing the Civic and Accord. They even built an Accord whose electric/gas engine combo was designed not to improve gas mileage, but to add punch to the acceleration. (Personally, I think they were having a little fun with us on that one.) Meanwhile, Toyota introduced the rather distinctive and nicely appointed Prius.

Fast-forward a year or two to Hurricane Katrina, $3.50 a gallon gas and global warming. All of a sudden the average affluent Joe wants to look like a tree hugger and save a few bucks in the process. Does he go out and buy a Civic Hybrid? No -- he buys the car that tells everyone he drives a hybrid without him having to point out a small label under the model badge.

So, basically, the most fuel efficient car company in the world got its clock cleaned. (Not that I have an issue with Toyotas. They're good cars. They're just not Hondas.)

Now, of course, Honda is working on its own distinctive hybrid. I'd be happy enough if they'd just make a Civic hybrid coupe. Preferrably red. Right now you can get a sedan with a choice of colors restricted to white, silver, black, silver blue and gray. So not only are you a tree hugger, you're phenomenally boring. At least the Insight came in red. Dang. Shoulda gotten one.

On another note, Honda's new entry-level car is the cute and economical Fit. Nice car, but I can't conceive of owning one. I mean, imagine the dinner party conversation:

"So, what kind of car do you have?"

"I have a Fit."

"I understand. I had a fit when my mechanic couldn't fix my transmission. Now, what is it you drive?"

(Still, it's nowhere near as bad as the Ford Probe. Who came up with that name? A Ford exec who just came back from the proctologist?)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dad's away ... let's have a party!

Friends in Australia tell me that Friday, September 7 has been declared a holiday in Sydney because George Bush is visiting the city. They don't like him, either, but they appreciate the day off.

One wonders: if he's left the country, why aren't we the ones partying?

Have fun dressing George for his visit!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Making air travel safe, one ridiculous restriction at a time.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I dropped by Ghirardelli Square for one of their amazingly good hot fudge sundaes (containing, of course, the vanilla ice cream they're famous for). A sign caught my eye: Transportation Security Administration rules prohibit air travelers from bringing Ghirardelli's hot fudge on board as a carry-on item.

One might question this. If there are terrorists out there who are using fudge sauce as a weapon, well, now, that's terror. What's the strategy: fatten up the passengers so they can't get out of the plane?

In all seriousness, you have to wonder: why chocolate sauce? A quick glance at the TSA website suggests that it's permissible if it's carried in a three-ounce container. Now, I ask you, is that anywhere enough chocolate to satisfy a traveler on a cross-country flight? Haven't these guys ever heard of PMS?

I mean, really. On this most recent flight, they served a choice of cheese steak or cream of asparagus soup. Doesn't it seem like hot cheese whiz or a steaming bowl of creamy soup would do a lot more damage than some room-temperature fudge sauce?

Ya gotta wonder.

(Interestingly, while Googling "TSA," I discovered it's also the acronym for the Tourette Syndrome Association. Just coincidence, or a sly reference to the spontaneous swearing heard at airport security?)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Elevator confessions

As I've mentioned, I live in an old building. Outside of bringing the wiring up to code when the place went condo, and the new appliances some of the owners have put in, there hasn't been a lot of modernizing since, well, 1940.

That includes the elevator. It's the same one that was installed when the building was originally built, and it's a real throwback. You press the button to call it, and when it comes and the inside sliding door rolls back, you pull the doorknob on the outer door to get in. It's only big enough to hold two people comfortably, and if you're going to two separate floors, the second person has to wait to press the button for their floor after the other person gets to theirs. The elevator is purely mechanical -- no computer to remember floors or anything else.

I came home the other day to find the building manager walking down the driveway with tools in hand. He explained that the lights had gone out in the elevator car, and he couldn't figure out why. Unfortunately it was Friday afternoon, so a repair person wouldn't be able to come by until Monday. In the meantime, the manager said, he'd put a flashlight into the car so it wouldn't be completely dark. I went in and checked it out -- yeah, it was dark, but the flashlight made it a little less spooky.

On Saturday, I went out for groceries, and being that I'm on the third floor, my usual practice is to bring the bags in through the back entrance and take the lift. When it came down to the basement, I opened the door to find two of those electric candle thingies in the back corners of the cab. They gave off a soft, flickering glow. In fact, at first I was confused into thinking they were actually lit wax candles.

So here I was, in a small box - a booth, almost -- with candles burning and a tiny window to see out. Hmm...

"Forgive me father, for I have sinned."

"How long has it been since your last confession?"

"Uh, let's see... I had to take the trash out Wednesday night. Maybe it was then ... do you remember seeing me carrying a sack of used cat litter?"

The Catholic church should check out the concept. Imagine if every elevator doubled as a confessional. The impact in office buildings alone would be tremendous, as people would be less inclined to make snide comments when other people leave the elevator. And I'd bet that the number of afternoon rendevous at upscale Manhattan hotels would plummet.

Then again, it probably wouldn't work. Nobody talks in elevators in normal circumstances. It's even more awkward when you're trapped in one alone with someone who insists on having an inane conversation with you. Imagine being stuck in there with a priest who's assigning penance. How many floors, how many Hail Marys?

It might be safer just to take the stairs.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A wall in Asbury Park that's no longer there.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Asbury Park progress... maybe they are doing what they said they would...

Went back down to Asbury Park; was wondering how the renovation of the Casino was going.

I found a good deal of activity going on. The old Howard Johnson's restaurant, with its space-age architecture, had been cleaned out, its former tenant replaced by a trendy casual restaurant. The goombahs who had sat outside keeping watch on the boardwalk were replaced by upper-middle class folks who would have shunned the old HoJos in disgust. A glass-blowing workshop and an art gallery were mixed in with the usual hot dog and pizza stands -- Asbury Park has to have the only boardwalk in the world that's home to resident artists who don't do caricatures. All of the businesses seemed to be getting good foot traffic, and people were dining at tables laid out cafe-style on the boardwalk.

I half expected to find the entire Casino site reduced to rubble, but there it was: the walkway and the carousel portion of the building, still standing.
In a way, I'm relieved that the scariest part of has been torn down - that the ghosts of the wilderness that grew inside the ruins of the part over the beach are now gone. But it looks totally weird that there is nothing there ... and that a temporary wall has been built there, kind of like those metal sheets magicians use when they divide the woman in the box.
The walkway was open to foot traffic as it was last summer, and a few people were walking through. I still got the willies from it, but I decided to check it out.

The plywood construction walls were gone, exposing the ornate, century-old plaster walls, complete with framed windows. The back side of drywall, held up by new metal studs, blocked off the entryways leading to the arcade that no longer stands. And I looked up to see what has to be a new corrugated metal roof, held up by the old metal rafters. I wonder if they'll put up new plaster to replace what had been there (and falling down).

As I walked through, I noticed that a door in the construction barrier on the western side of the building was open and exposed the carousel room. I'd never seen the inside of that, except in pictures of the old merry-go-round that had long ago been sold off to some amusement park in the Midwest ("ride on an authentic Jersey Shore carousel!"). Work was being done there, and I was happy to see that the metalwork faces in the arched windows have been preserved.

Outside, workers were busily tearing the shingles from the peaked circular roof above. Already, the room between the main walkway and the carousel had been replaced by a shiny new metal roof awaiting a final topcoat. Hopefully they won't find any rot beneath, and they'll be able to save at least part of what was originally laid there.

So who knows where they'll be in the process the next time I'm down there. They're certainly making progress. Maybe (hope springs eternal) by this time this year, we'll be enjoying the new building.

I just wonder if it will still give me the willies.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Gotta love technology...

One of the alternately fun and frustrating parts of my job is the necessity of using technology, namely "social media." That's the fancy term for computer-based stuff that gives people the ability to communicate back and forth with others without having to go through a gatekeeper (editor, censor, etc.). You just publish what you want, let it fly and wait for others to comment using the same technology.

Blogging, of course, is one avenue to take. Another is podcasting, which I always find kind of fascinating. The idea that people are downloading boring business presentations to their iPods always seemed kind of ridiculous to me, but I guess there are some subjects that folks would download.

One of my work friends and I are both single, and we've had many a conversation about the vagaries of ending relationships. I've always said it's best to be open and honest and tell the guy you'd rather stop seeing him. Now, I say that's best, but it takes a lot of courage I only recently have been able to muster. My work friend, on the other hand, is a big fan of the remote -- or even silent -- breakup. You know: just stop calling, be unavailable, etc. If she's feeling particularly brave, she sends the guy an e-mail. Of course, you can take the happy medium and call him. You don't have to face him, you become the breaker rather than the breakee, and you can write up speaking points for the conversation.

That led us to the new media alternative: the breakup podcast. All you need is a computer, a microphone and a belly full of disgust or sheer contempt. (Let's face it -- you need to have enough energy to take the trouble.) And you can script yourself! If you make the podcast generic enough, you can recycle it. That's particularly useful for those of us who make the same mistake and date the same kind of guy over and over.

There's probably a very profitable business in there somewhere, too. In the past, folks have made good money writing "Dear John" letters. How about the "Dear John" podcast? It's both effective and memorable! And think - at some point there will be some guy out there collecting the "best of" breakup-casts. I'll bet they start a special section on iTunes for free downloads.

Okay, so maybe it's not the best thing in the world, but it beats IM'ing the guy to tell him you think it's not working. And yes, this was once suggested to me when I said we needed to have "the talk." Ironically, one of my issues with the relationship was that he was over-dependent on texting.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Collecting up flies?

With the magical timing only the White House seems to be able to conjure regularly, a report on al Qaeda's growing strength to attack in the US just happened to come out at the same time as Congressional Republicans are trying to force Bush to change direction in Iraq. In the words of today's New York Times editorial, "the message, as always: Be very afraid. And don’t question the president."

Now, most people with an ounce of common sense in their brain pan understand that the war in Iraq has united -- not weakened -- the terrorist threat. Nothing like giving those who hate you even more reason to hate you, right? Makes America look like one of those abusive parents who shouts at a sobbing child, "You wanna cry? I'll give you something to cry about!" And I won't even get into the debate over whether there was any connection between Saddam and the 9/11 hijackers.

Sure, Bush and his cronies are using every last pathetic angle to build fear among the populace. You know -- fight 'em there so they can't get here. It's an interesting approach, actually. You create an irresistable annoyance in one place (Iraq), figuring that it will distract the bad guys away from another place (mom, apple pie and baseball).

Reminds me of a story told by the late, great Spalding Gray. In one of his monologues, he related his experience in crashing for a night in the hovel of a grimy old hippie. All night, Spalding was pestered by flies. Couldn't catch a wink of sleep. The next morning, he asked his host whether he, too, had a lot of flies in his room, and whether they kept him up.

The hippie admitted he had flies, too, but he had a secret that kept them away from his bed. "I collect them up."

Collect them up?

"Yeah -- I just shit in the corner before I go to bed, and the flies crawl all over it all night."

I guess that's like "fight 'em there so we don't have to fight them here," but the only ones who get fooled are the flies. In any case, Bush has certainly dumped a lot of shit in the corner -- and it certainly stinks up the joint.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Random musings on exploration

This is a small segment of the Paulinskill Viaduct, a massive, 100-year old train trestle in the middle of nowhere in Warren County, New Jersey. Towering more than 10 stories, it stretches 1100 feet across the Paulins Kill (Kill being a Dutch word for a type of river or stream) and the surrounding countryside. In other words, it's big. It's really big. These photos don't do it justice, and my exploring companion and I may go back after the leaves have fallen.

The first inclination is to wonder why the Delaware Lackawanna and Western would spend a ton of money to build this huge structure in the middle of nowhere, until you found out that it was part of a deactivated rail line between New York and Scranton. I guess the volume of coal coming from that part of Pennsylvania made it a viable route. (The viable viaduct -- hmm) See a 1950s era passenger timetable for a list of stops on the route.

There's also the usual apocrypha about a worker being buried in the concrete during construction and so forth. I always wonder about stories like that, which seem to haunt every bridge structure built in America. I guess the smart guys waited to apply for jobs working on them until the requisite one laborer died there. (And no Jimmy Hoffa jokes, please.)

The viaduct gets plenty of coverage, so to speak: Weird NJ and a host of websites dedicated to the exploration of abandoned structures. It's really enticing in a spooky way. Those arches beneath the track bed are hollow and conducive for crawling through. The scenery and the graffiti are said to be incredible.

I've seen photos, but no way was I going to go up there. At least not on this trip. While I don't have a fear of heights, I have trepidation of heights when there's no railing to protect me. And while I may possess the dexterity and energy to make the climb up the steep hill to the most accessible base, there's the whole matter of getting DOWN.

It does, however, bring me back to some of my travels in Europe. Like anyplace else, getting to some of the more attractive destinations takes a bit of skill and courage. Most recently, I experienced this at the Skellig Islands off the coast of southwestern Ireland, where you have to climb six hundred slate steps to get to the real attraction: the sixth century monastery up top. Man, those monks really got away from it all, didn't they?

The view is incredible but the steps are scary! And the trip to the island is made in a small boat. Across choppy waters. It wouldn't be so bad if you could just keep your eye on the horizon, but with waves sometimes bigger than the boat, it's not always possible. Needless to say, if you get there without losing your cookies, you may or may not feel well enough to climb to the top.

Anyway, back to the point - nowhere on Skellig is there a railing, except for the rope you can cling to as you climb the sturdy concrete steps up the dock. There are no signs warning you that the slate stairs are often loose. Or that they're barely wide enough to plant two feet on. No disclaimers, no releases to sign. You just go and hope for the best.

That's the difference between Europe and the overly litigious United States. Reminds me of a story I heard about two Frenchmen who visited Yellowstone park and came upon some bears. As one walked closer to the huge animal, the other warned him not to. The more adventurous (stupid?) one said that it was okay, the Americans wouldn't have bears in the parks if they were actually dangerous. What happened next? Let's just say that the safer Frenchman went home alone.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Today marks four years since my cat, Hattie, came home to live with me.

It still kind of amazes me that she's been with me so long. Sometimes it amazes me that she's with me at all. I'd wanted a cat on and off for many years -- since childhood, actually -- but I had myself convinced that I wouldn't be a proper caretaker for another living being who depended on me for sustenance. But I'd been volunteering at a shelter with a man I was dating, and I came to realize that the love I was giving the dogs there might actually mean that I could take care of a little furry creature at home. A dog clearly wasn't an option, though there was one I would have taken home in a heartbeat. Also, when the boyfriend and I started at the shelter, I made him promise he wouldn't let me bring a new little friend home, and he took that promise seriously.

Eventually, the boyfriend and I broke up, and I found myself spending a lot of time at the shelter, working with the dogs. Maybe it was the need for unconditional love, or maybe it was just a way to keep myself occupied with something productive that made a difference for someone. In any case, I guess it helped me work out my feelings a bit.

It was kitten season, and opportunity kind of hit me in the face. The shelter was looking for foster homes to take in a few at the point when the need was greatest: late spring and early summer. While I knew I couldn't care for a bunch of little guys just a few weeks old, I told myself it would be just as helpful to foster a grown cat. The shelter would have more space, and I would be able to "test drive" being a cat caretaker, so to speak. If things didn't work out, I could bring the feline back without feeling like a complete jerk.

On one of my regular volunteer nights, July 3, I told one of the shelter officers I'd been thinking of fostering, and she was ready to have me take home a cat that minute. I went into the shelter as she told me the names of some of the more sedate cats who wouldn't climb the walls. She was particularly enthusiastic about one who was about as active as a sofa cushion.

I took a look around as cats walked past me, rubbing against my legs. None of them appealed to me. One of the other volunteers told me that I'd just know the right one, and if I didn't feel it that night, it might hit me in a day or two. That made sense.

While all of the crates were open and most cats were taking the chance to stretch their legs, one small gray one sat shyly inside. When I put my hand in to pet her, she started licking it. I'd never been licked by a cat before -- I didn't know they did that.

I went home that night without a cat. The next day was July 4th, and even as I went about celebrating independence, that small gray cat started rubbing against the corners of my mind. By the next morning, I knew I had to go get Hattie.

It was a really hot day, and I remember bringing her home with the AC blasting in my car, telling her we were going to be great friends. She meowed concerns, I sang to her. As soon as we got to my house, I set up the litter box and let her out of the carrier, at which point she promptly holed up in a nook in my bathroom. I knew it was best to let her come out when she was comfortable, but I'd go in from time to time to speak gently to her.

Later that evening, I went into the bathroom to visit her, and she wasn't there. As I returned to the living room, I found her waiting patiently by the sofa. I laid down, and she jumped up onto my chest, did a rhythmic milk tread for a few moments, settled down to nestle against me and began to purr loudly.

Something about the trust of that small gray ball of fur, and the contented purring, and the closeness, brought me to tears. After several weeks of being alone, it was a relief to feel that someone, even a cat, wanted to be close to me. The fact that she'd accepted me so quickly -- the fact she'd chosen me -- felt like such a miracle to me. The whole "foster cat" concept went out the door. She wasn't going anywhere if it wasn't with me.

We've been through a lot, which is a whole other story, and she's even gotten to meet the old boyfriend, now a friend, who's known to her as the person who's the catalyst for her and me even meeting. She's happy to see me in the morning when I wake up and at night when I come home. And she parks herself on my lap, or even my shoulders, whenever I work on this blog. Of all the constants in my life, she's one of the most pleasant, and I'm thankful for that.

So happy Gotcha Day, Hattie. You've taught me a lot, like any good friend does, and you've given me even more love than I've given you. I'm so happy you're with me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fiendishly brilliant

Both Bushes -- HW and W -- had truly inspired choices for vice president. Yes, they chose wisely when they selected the men who would be, as they say, a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Back in the early 80's, of course, it was Dan Quayle. Not only was he portrayed as goofier and dumber than any other choice the elder Bush could have made, his wife was truly scary. Yes, scary. On so many levels.

And, of course, the younger Bush selected Dick Cheney, the scariest man on the planet. Even scarier than Marilyn Quayle.

Now, don't both of them seem like the best insurance policies the Bushes could have? Who would take a shot at either the father or the son if the result would be Quayle or Cheney in the White House? And who would move to impeach either Bush if the result would be President Quayle or President Cheney (just the thought gives me shivers).

You have to admit: it's a pretty smart move to make your own replacement option far scarier than you. Gotta give them credit.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Random musings from 'boken

Okay, so I was wrong about Tony. I have to admit that I liked Chase's ending much better. In both cases, let's face it, Tony has to spend the rest of his life with eyes in the back of his head. Not a way to live a life, is it?

"The state crushes the individual."

"What, New Jersey?"

Since the end of the Seinfeld experiment, the Mets have been tanking and the Yanks have been surging. Still and all, I refuse to go back. Hmm. Ironically, that's the opposite of what I would have done in the past. Only one thing to say: "Newman!" Oh, and the Amazins have to take two of three this weekend. Please.

Hoboken, once the land of drunken post-college frat boys, appears to have become an Aprica stroller showroom. From public vomiting and urination in the street, the scene has evolved into dirty diapers and spitting up on a bib. I expect that in another 20 years, those who are soiling the Huggies will be back to barf on the sidewalk after the bars close. The cycle of life, indeed.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tony Soprano gets it in the end

With the last episode of The Sopranos ready to air tomorrow night, many theories on Tony's fate are being floated in the media and at office water coolers.

Last week's episode ended with an ominous scene: Tony laying down on a bare mattress in a safe house, bringing to bed a shotgun whose business end he positioned -- just for a moment -- eerily close to his mouth. One had to wonder - if his intent was self-protection, why wasn't the gun pointed at the door? Did he intend to protect himself by shooting murderers bursting through the door, or was he ready to beat them to the punch by offing himself?

A lot of people think he'll get whacked by the rival New York family, with Paulie ending up as boss of a much weaker Jersey crew, which would be a lame finish to what's been a groundbreaking and widely analyzed drama.

I don't think Tony comes to a fatal end -- at least not from the corporeal sense. What, for him, would be a fate worse than death? Here's my thought on the closing scene of the final episode:

Reprising an oft-used scene, we see Tony's slippered feet once again walking down a macadam driveway, stopping to pick up a newspaper at his feet. This time, however, it isn't the Newark Star-Ledger (the Newspaper for New Jersey), but The Journal-Star, (Lincoln, Nebraska's News and Information Source). The same dingy white bathrobe loosely opened to reveal his boxer shorts and guinea tee, he opens the paper to read the headline: "Nebraskan Anderson Soars in Space Shuttle." A resigned look on his face, he turns to walk back to the house, a suburban split level ranch house.

Tony Soprano is dead, replaced by Kevin Finnerty. No good capicola (gabbagool), no bracciole, no strip clubs, nobody to drive him around, and no wife wearing expensive clothes and an array of guilt-induced gift jewelry.

The question David Chase leaves us with is: What would be worse -- getting whacked by the New York crew, or a life without the spoils of a life of intimidation and brute force? Is Agent Harris' solution any better for Tony than Phil Leotardo's?

Then again, it wouldn't be half bad if Tony were to get a job at an animal shelter. Maybe getting some unconditional love would do him some good. That is, if he didn't go after the people who abused or neglected the shelter animals in the first place. We all remember what happened to Ralphie Cifaretto when he had Pie-O-My's stable torched.

(And gee, I just realized this makes two consecutive posts featuring TV characters played by balding, middle-aged guys from Jersey. Actually, three, if you count Joe Pantoliano. I promise I'll stop.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Seinfeld experiment is over!

Y'all were right. The quirks got way too annoying.

So much for doing the exact opposite of what hasn't worked in the past.

All I can say is "Not groovy."

Now all we can hope is that the Yankees continue to tank.

Monday, May 21, 2007


I often travel on my own, which sometimes opens up opportunities to chat with people or have experiences I probably wouldn't have if I were with someone else. You know the way it is: a lot of the time, it's far easier to approach one person than it is to go up to a pair or a trio or more.

One thing I notice -- and this started when I worked near Rockefeller Center in New York -- is that people find it easier to ask you to take a picture of them and their friends in front of some famous site or other. I don't mind doing it. In fact, I often volunteer my services as a photographer to groups of people so everyone can be in a photo together. I've gotten more confident about it with the advent of digital photography. Now I can look at the photo and know with certainty that they won't go back to Sweden or whereever and curse the American who cut off Uncle Bjorn's head in the picture at the Statue of Liberty.

Anyway, I thought this same thing was happening during my last sightseeing visit to San Francisco. I'd hiked my way across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, ending up at the scenic overlook where they'd thoughtfully put a parking lot and a souvenir stand. (They knew what they were doing when they built that bridge.) It was the last thing on my list of to dos in the city, and it was my last day on vacation, so I was feeling good, and accustomed to being asked to take photos for people.

So... I wasn't all that surprised when a pair of young Japanese men (boys, really) came up to me with a disposable camera and motioned to me that they wanted a picture. They pointed to each other and then to me.

Okay, no problem. I nodded and reached for the camera, and the one holding it shook his head no as the other put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me toward him. Oh boy. Before I knew it, my new friend was holding his other arm out triumphantly, giving a big thumbs up for the camera. The picture taken, they both smiled broadly and nodded their thanks. Then they walked away.

It all happened so quickly I didn't realize until later that at least one of them wanted to look as if he was, uh, successful on his trip to the States. Probably now half of Nagoya thinks he got lucky with this red-haired American woman. Unless, of course, his friend gave me the same photo-blunder fate as I once feared would befall Uncle Bjorn at my hands.

One can hope.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Number one with a bullet!

Happened to mention the words "Shellpile" and "my blog" (independently -- not referring to one as related to the other) to a friend, and he later told me he'd found the blog. Seemed a little scary until I Googled to find... when you type in "Shellpile," the first reference is to... THIS BLOG!

Although, maybe that's just on my computer or something. Check it out, let me know...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The consequences of free speech

There's been a lot of back and forth lately about free speech. What can a radio personality say and get away with? What's defamatory or racist language, and what's a mere expression of thought, either serious or intended as a joke?

As a Rutgers alumna I heard more than my share of the recent tsimmis about Imus and his comments about the RU women's basketball team. What he said was ill advised and stupid, and the team was well within its rights in being upset that they'd be disrespected that way.

I'm not going to get into opinions on whether Imus deserved to lose his job over the comment; plenty's been said on both sides by people more qualified than I. What I'm fascinated by is the free speech argument.

Those who defend Imus say that he has the right to free speech, just like anyone else, and that he shouldn't be fired for exercising that right. I agree with the first point, but I think the second one doesn't account for a certain reality.

There's an old saying about yelling fire in a crowded movie house (or shouting "movie" in a crowded firehouse, but that's another story). You cause a riot, you get arrested. That's the consequence of that free speech. Bottom line, you have the right to say whatever you want, but then you have to accept that there's a cost attached.

There are countless examples of people being fired for making objectionable statements. In fact, broadcasters of some shock jocks budget for the inevitable FCC fines, figuring they're the cost of doing business.

Imus surely was aware of the fines, bad press and firings his compadres have experienced. He had the choice to say what he said, or to hold his tongue or say something tame. By reasonable person standards, it wasn't surprising that he got called on the carpet.

It all comes down to two simple guidelines. If you have no problem with the consequences of your words, speak away. When you're at risk of losing something that matters to you, think about it before you spew.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bandaging the scar

RayPod recently posted about memories that come to mind while walking down the Hudson River walkway in Manhattan.

It led me to think about the World Trade Center site itself, my own feelings about what happened there, and what is happening now. Over the past couple of years, I've found myself drawn to Lower Manhattan ... for the history of New York's earliest years. More often than not, I take the PATH train in from Newark to the WTC site.

The PATH predates the WTC by many years; it was originally the Hudson & Manhattan railroad, leading to Dey Street, and was taken over by the Port Authority in the early 60s. When the world's tallest buildings were erected, the PATH station was included in the plans and ultimately was relocated to the basement mezzanine level. The tracks swept underneath the outer borders of the WTC property, just skirting the streets above.

That station was closed temporarily after the attacks; when it reopened, riders saw an unusual site -- glimmers of outside light poking into the tunnel below the building that was no longer there. Over time, the tunnel itself was taken down, so you could see directly into the pit that used to be the building basement. For the dollar fifty you spent for the train ride, you got a ground floor view of the remnants of tragedy. You could see the metal ties that anchored the building to the concrete foundation and walls; the ground seemed almost totally swept clean of dirt and, sadly, human remains. There were few pieces of construction ... or demolition... equipment for a year or more as officials wrangled over the future of the new "Freedom Tower" to be built there. Like everything else in New York, it couldn't materialize without some controversy to delay the inevitable.

Every time I rode into that station along the perimeter of the pit, I would fall silent in contemplation of that day, what happened there, the ghosts that remain and the fact they'd just been there to work another mundane day at their jobs. Any tourists on the train would murmur remarks to each other, some pulling out cameras to preserve the sight. Though I'd come to take photos of my roamings, I felt that it's inappropriate to treat it like a tourist destination. The only thing I ever photographed was the street-level entrance to the station which, though temporary, is an appropriate sign of rebirth, of life in the face of tragedy.

I don't know if I feel that way about what's going on there now. Now the train ride is more like a tram ride through a Disney exhibit. A few weeks ago I rode into the station and found a true construction site: a beehive of activity, equipment and the germination of a skyscraper. You can't look straight across the pit anymore: your view is now obstructed by beams and rebar and concrete.

I guess it's progress, but I can't help but feel they're desecrating hallowed ground. But, as the hackneyed expression goes, New York's always reinventing itself. It rebuilt itself over the ashes of great fires in the days of the Dutch colony. It's torn down history wantonly and erected skyscrapers in its place. It's evicted working class people and torn their homes down for highways.

But until now it's never made such a grandiose gesture to build over a fresh, deep, aching wound. Maybe it's good - maybe it is the salve to heal an unspeakable tragedy. But I can't help but think that it's way, way too early to move to replace what was there and what was lost.

Friday, March 30, 2007

What's a quirk, and what's intolerable?

An episode of Seinfeld focused on the totally shallow reasons why some people choose to end relationships. You know, things like "he picks the green marshmallows out of the Lucky Charms and leaves the rest," or "she doesn't know the theme song from The Brady Bunch." A story in today's New York Times offered another dimension: being repulsed by the stuff your prospective honey may have in his apartment or home that is slightly scary, like a real stuffed seal or a set of aged and fading cartoon print bedsheets. Someone who's downright attractive on paper suddenly looks like a freak.

I found this article very timely, as I recently started dating someone who warned me, before I went to his home, that his place doesn't reflect "him." He'd moved there really quickly for family reasons and thus didn't want to be judged or assessed by it. Well, the place seemed perfectly reasonable to me, but somehow it seemed to make him feel uncomfortable.

To me, this was ironic. What he didn't realize was that since date one, said date has truly been testing my own shallow criteria. Great guy, but wrong favorite ball team, wrong vehicle, wrong music, wrong pre-sets on the car stereo, you name it. I keep wondering when I'm going to totally lose it and go off on him for all of these things that don't really matter.

I have been trying really hard not to blow off potential relationships due to surface stuff. Maybe I've been much too picky in the past, and focused on my own too-exacting standards, to notice that there are some pretty nice guys hiding behind those one or two minor shallow "flaws" I find so objectionable. I have no illusions that I would be able to wean someone off of an addiction to the early years of Full House, but maybe I could tolerate the obsession. At some point, you need to compromise, but somehow I can't seem to find the golden mean. How much must one person compromise?

In the interest of full disclosure, same date noted that I have three litter boxes in one room, for one cat, about three feet apart. I fully admit that it's quirky, but not any more so than my rubber duckies, is it?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Somehow I don't think this is what they intended.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The deconstruction of Asbury Park

They've started the "renovation" of one of the iconic structures on the Asbury Park boardwalk: the Casino.

Shellpile readers will remember a post last summer where I described my experience walking into the small bit of the Casino which was open to foot traffic. It was a corridor linking the Asbury Park boardwalk to the neighboring town of Ocean Grove, and it offered just an indication of a building that had sat idle for close to 20 years. The portion of the building that stood over the beach was decrepit and inaccessible; trees growing inside the building could be seen through the broken windows and holes in the roof.

Now, that expanse over the beach is no more than a pile of milled rubble. The eeriness of the structure has dissipated in the brisk ocean winds of late winter. And the sound of demolition equipment surrounds the area; it's the most activity that particular bit of beach has seen in quite some time.

Though the building is partitioned away by temporary fencing, I could see into the corridor I'd walked through last summer. The sign for the Casino Skating Palace is gone; with any luck it's being preserved along with an old chandelier they found in the building. I wonder where the ghosts have gone -- the screams from the haunted house, the laughter from the roller rink, the clandestine pleading from the Tunnel of Love.

Last I heard, the people who bought the Casino are rebuilding it to look exactly as it looked in its heyday. They'd wanted to preserve the structure but found it was unsound. Allegedly they are working to keep as much standing as possible, but I don't know. Those things tend to stray from plan, especially in New Jersey, where they take every renovation project as an opportunity to tear down what's there and replace it with McMansions. I guess we'll see.

Asbury Park Casino: May 6, 2006

Asbury Park Casino: March 10, 2007

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jehovah's Witnesses Go Postal

These days, it's truly unusual for me to get a handwritten envelope in the mail. None of my friends are Amish, so I tend to get most of my correspondence by electronic means. Even my mom, in her mid 70's, has started sending me birthday cards by e-mail.

Today I was a little more than surprised when I got an envelope in the mail with a cursive script address. At first I thought it was one of those computer-generated mass mailings with the fake handwriting that intends to fool you into thinking someone wrote you a letter, but it was the real McCoy. For a second I thought maybe it was my mom, sending a newspaper clipping about something I last cared about in the ninth grade. Nope, not her handwriting.

These days, you really need to be careful what you open, but I forgot that when I tore open the envelope. Inside was a handwritten note, along with a small pamphlet. The note read:

Dear Mr. ________ :

My husband and I live in your area. We do not Know You Personally, but We have some important information to share. A sample is enclosed in a tract.

We have tried in the past to contact you With No Success. We realize most people are Very busy today.

As a Bible Student We are sharing as Volunteers in a Worldwide Work being done in over 234 Lands.

If after reading the enclosed Tract you are interested, contact us at the above address.

Eleanor Myers
Jehovah's Witness

This led me to wonder: have the Jehovah's Witnesses gotten so lazy that they are resorting to letter writing instead of knocking on doors? Not that I'm complaining -- I really don't want to talk about God with people who won't celebrate their own birthdays -- but come on, put a little effort into it, guys. I didn't realize that if I want to be proselytized, I have to be the one doing most of the work.

Or maybe they've finally gotten the hint? Have they gotten so weary of rejection that they're mailing out letters in the half-hearted hopes that someone will actually take the bait? Maybe it's the redemption lottery: the more letters you send, the more likely that one person will respond.

Come to think of it, there's a big opportunity here that millions of people have probably hoped for yet never had. What would Mrs. Eleanor Myers do if I showed up at her door and wouldn't leave until she accepted SpongeBob Square Pants as her personal savior?

It's tempting, but why take the chance?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Only in New York.....

Apparently they get a rabbi to say "om" over the food as it's prepared...

Monday, February 19, 2007

The hazards of equality

When first named to lead Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina was asked what it felt like to be the first female CEO of a major high tech company. "I don't know," she famously said. "I don't know what it's like to be a male CEO." Admirably, she downplayed the impact of her gender on her role, acknowledging that she had been raised with the belief that she could achieve whatever she wanted. Her upbringing had been tempered neither with the message that she was held back from some things because she's female, nor that she had to work and fight all that much harder because she's a woman. If she worked hard, she could succeed. She confronted her share of discrimination along the way, but she faced it and overcame it, as any ambitious person would.

When Carly ran into difficulties at HP and ultimately was very publicly relieved of her duties, some pundits opined that she never really fit in because she was a woman in a male-dominated industry. Never mind that HP has quite a good track record of promoting and hiring on merit, regardless of gender. Never mind that she showed immediate and persistent disdain for the company's much heralded consensus-based culture. And never mind that her own substantial hubris had kept her from adapting her strategy when it proved unworkable.

It led me to think: we've achieved equality only when we have the chance to fail equally as spectacularly as we want to succeed. If women are to be judged on their own merits, we have to take the bad with the good. If we want a fair opportunity to succeed, we have to be willing to suffer the consequences of failure. To expect otherwise is to ask for preferential treatment -- just the thing feminists fought against when it was granted solely to white men.

If people in a business - or a society - expect to be treated fairly in a meritocracy, it seems to me that they'd want to be judged solely on what they achieve and the talents they bring to the table. They wouldn't want to be granted a mulligan after they err. If you insist on swinging from the mens' tees, you can't demand the womens' handicap when your shot misses the hole by five feet. Yes, it stinks to fail, and yes, it really stinks to lose something you've worked so hard and so long to gain. But that's what makes it so precious to win in the first place.

Said another way, "They wouldn't let me succeed because I am a woman" is the flip side of "they only gave me a chance because I am a woman." No ambitious person - male or female, Caucasian or otherwise - wants to be judged that way.

Maybe history doesn't remember those who come in second place, or the people who fail. At the same time, it does remember those who recover and go on to win. (Just look at the '69 Mets) I think that the real prize of equality is getting the opportunity to bounce back from failure or setbacks.

Here's to more second acts. And more chances to risk spectacular failure.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Meet me halfway, dude: dress the part.

What's the deal with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? I'm not going to get into politics ... we all know the guy is both deranged and evil. I'm talking about his image:

Why can't the guy wear a tie?

In every picture I've seen, he's wearing a sport jacket and a dress shirt with one or two buttons unbuttoned. It's not a bad look, but come on. The guy seems to think that it's casual Friday every day. Isn't it reasonable to expect this guy to find a respectable outfit befitting an evil despot?

Every self-respecting dictator or deranged leader puts some thought into an evil costume -- a look he makes his own. It's like the villains in Batman or Superman. Think about it: Kim Jong Il has that weird hair. Castro has made the rumpled fatigues look his trademark. Khadafi has had two distinct looks: when he was an axis of evil guy, he had that snappy army uniform with a bit too much ornamentation. Now, as a man of peace, he's got the Arab getup.

You dress as any one of them (or someone worse, as Prince Harry discovered) for Halloween, and people immediately know who you are. Dress like Ahmadinejad, and people assume you had to work late and didn't have the time to change before you came to the party. You look like that guy on the NJ Transit train who had a rough day, pulled off his tie and started drinking beer out of a can smuggled in a paper bag. Let's face it - it's one step better than the lame "let me cut a few eyeholes in a sheet and I'll go as a ghost" costume.

Now, I have nothing against the casual, no-tie look. Most men can pull it off. But does it command respect? Does it engender fear? I'd say no. For a lot of guys, it wouldn't even get them a date at a singles dance. So Ahmadinejad thinks it's going to ensure him permanent status in the Axis of Evil? Seems mighty doubtful.

What's funny is that Katie Couric recently noted the mnemonic she uses to remember the pronunciation of his name: "I'm a dinner jacket."