Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest Post: Motocross Circa 1983

By Paul Harvey

What is it like to push a motocross bike up to the line at a pro-level class?  You make sure your gas is on. And you look up and down the line at the other 39 people and their motocross bikes. You look at the brands. There is Yamaha and Honda, Maico, Husqvarna, Suzuki, etc. The two-minute sign comes up, everybody starts their engines, the cacophony starts. All those engines, with different sounds, are suddenly resident. So now you ready yourself for the start. You make sure your motorcycle -- your steed -- is ready to go as fast as possible. You recognize that the other 39 motocrossers are ready for the same. Then the gate drops. The unpredictable chaos hopefully gets you through the first turn, and then you can conduct your race. Now it's a matter of knowing your lines and performing. The harsh reality is knowing that a tenth of a second lost on cutting a corner or missing a jump is time lost unless you're good enough to be the winner.

As you fight through the fatigue and the sweat of pursuing being as fast as possible, and challenging your fears of crashing, you ride the fine edge and then you define how fast you are. The exhaustion is exhilarating. The adage is, when the flag drops, the bullshit stops. 

Motocross is like any other endeavor in life: It's a matter of commitment, understanding, and challenging ourselves. We must seek risk. We must.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day in a Small Town

Drums and guns. Veterans. Firemen and their trucks. The mayor. Kids on bikes. A band. A color guard. People lining the streets, waving flags to remember those lost, those returned, and those who fought so we can porch sit on a sunny Monday morning appreciating a small-town parade. Life here in America isn't perfect, but is still -- all things considered -- pretty darn good. Thank you soldiers, wherever you are.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Of Birds and Girls and Wiser Women

Starlings have built a nest in the eaves outside my kitchen window. I've owned this house for nine years, and for nine years there's been a starling nest in the same spot. I know I'm not supposed to like starlings. They're mean, invasive birds I'm told by people who profess to know such things. But I can't help myself. Every morning mom (or dad) starling stands on the corner of my back roof with a mouthful of worm, scoping out the property before diving under the roofline to the screeches of hatchlings. There is guano staining the side of my house, about which I'm also supposed to care. I don't though. After the babies have flown away I'll get out the hose and wash it off. For the moment, I'm enchanted by the hungry chirping.

I took a drive today through my "old stomping ground," Earlville...where I grew up. I drove up Castle Hill and down, took a hard left and cruised over the next ridge overlooking a beautiful valley now finally filled with spring. I remember soaring down this hill on a bicycle once, when I was twelve or thirteen and visiting my friend Jennifer. My long hair sailed behind me, feet off the pedals, flying down a country road in a way that would surely have made my mother blanche. There are sheep everywhere now, and new houses, where then homes were few and far between. My old Castle Hill friend Jennifer and another, Teresa, are visiting this weekend. We're having a pajama party, long-ago girls now in their fifties. There has been much death here lately. Important elders leaving us for whatever is next. My friends and I have agreed that we must stop the clock, set aside busy lives to don soft nightgowns and curl on sofas to catch up and remember how we love each other, knowing at last that time is so fleeting. We are wise to sense this, and relieved that friendships can last so long. I have known Teresa forty-plus years; Jennifer and I met in kindergarten, five decades ago. Their faces -- like mine -- are older but strangely the same. We scattered apart, into law and teaching and Long Island writing. Yet when I see them no time has passed. On Saturday young girls will be on couches. Laughing. Remembering. Thankful.

I can't chase the birds away, can't board up the eve to prevent future nesting, and will be somehow sad when the odious starlings are gone. This morning I found an empty blue egg on the slate below and hoped the baby escaped my cats, hoped the cracked shell was a sign that life goes on. It is not such trouble to wash off the guano, and to repaint if need be. When I make my coffee near the window of the nest, I ponder, and hope the egg's grown starling will return next spring, different but strangely familiar. Wiser. And home again.

10,000 Miles, Mary Chapin Carpenter

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Walk In The Arts...Revisited

Six decades ago -- in 1949 -- life in America was very different. Harry Truman was president, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio was playing for the Yankees, and golfer Sam Sneed captured the green jacket at the Master's Tournament. Other notable events that year: RCA introduced the 45 RPM record; The Lone Ranger premiered on ABC; the first Polaroid camera was sold; the first Emmy Awards show was held; Billy Graham began his ministry; and the first automatic streetlight flickered to life in New Milford, Connecticut.

In October of 1949, one hundred and thirty miles or so west of New Milford, another exciting event was taking place, not that it made the national papers. The local art society held its first art show in the tiny town of Sherburne, New York. The year before, in 1948, artist Mariea L. Brown helped to co-found the Sherburne Art Society. The society's goal was a straightforward one: to bring together area people who enjoyed art and creativity, and to learn about, teach, and promote art in the community.

Mrs. Brown and her fellow artists came together in 1949 and displayed their artistic work. In Mrs. Brown's case, she showed paintings with names like Rocky Coast of Maine, Lobster Wharf at Kennebunkport, Autumn Plowing, and Sherburne Episcopal Church. The show was a great success, and in fact ran another forty-plus years at the park in downtown Sherburne. If you talk to locals today their eyes twinkle at the mention of the show, many of whom remember taking their children -- or going as children -- to the park to admire paintings, sculpture, and other inspirational craft. One artist, now of Norwich, remembers his first exhibition at the Sherburne Art Show...when he was six years old. The event was a staple of the community, and it was with heavy hearts that the show was discontinued after Mrs. Brown's passing in 1996.

Mariea Brown painting to be on exhibit at Sherburne Public Library, June 9

On Saturday, June 9, 2012, the Sherburne art show, now called The Sherburne Arts & Crafts Family Festival, returns to Gaines Park. Hosted by The Sherburne Public Library, the festival will feature local artists and crafters, a student exhibition tent, a children's interactive art tent, a ticket auction, a silent auction, food vendors, and music. There will also be a special exhibit in the library on June 9 of Mrs. Brown's work, donated for the purpose of the exhibit by local residents. While the event is a fundraiser for the library, the long goal is to recreate what was once a joyous immersion into creativity and community in a town known for historic homes, its band and color guard programs, its exceptional school, and its people -- friendly, hardworking, involved, and artistic.

The 2012 Sherburne Arts & Crafts Family Festival will be dedicated to Mariea Brown, whose vision sixty-three years ago not only created memories in local hearts, but put tiny Sherburne on the map in art circles across the state.

For more information about the show, or to participate as an artist, crafter, musician, sponsor, or food vendor, visit http://sherburneartshow.blogspot.com

Friday, May 18, 2012

Josh Ledet: You Got Robbed

It was an Idol shocker, at least at my house. Josh Ledet didn't make the finals [for those of you who 1) don't like American Idol, 2) think American Idol is "fixed," or 3) think American Idol is a waste of time, feel free to move on to Ebay...this is going to be some Idol Chatter].

I've been watching American Idol devotedly since Season 2, and agree with the grinning and adjective-deficient judges: these are the best contestants in a long time, maybe ever. Randy's ceaseless yippings of "Yo Dog!," J-Lo's maddening "It's CRAZY!!" exclamations, and Steven's lofty cries of "Over the top!!!" notwithstanding, the performers this year have been terrific. We wound down to the final three last night, and to my amazement Louisiana boy Josh Ledet was voted off. I'm a fan of Phil Phillips, who in my humble and non-professional musical opinion is a unique artist in spite of his sometimes similarity to Dave Matthews. His talent is raw and compelling, and you can see when he sings that there's something interesting going on in his head. It also doesn't hurt that he's darling, reminding me a bit of a young Paul Newman. Jessica Sanchez has a powerhouse voice but frankly grates on my nerves. She's 16 and plays it sweet, but I get the sense there's a not-so-nice diva hiding beneath those hand-covering giggles.

Then there's Josh, a gentle fellow who for weeks got up on stage and blew everybody away with his soulful gospel Motown sound. When Josh sang it was as though an other-worldly spirit entered him. His eyes changed, his demeanor changed, his movements were performance perfection, and even he -- along with the rest of us -- seemed startled at what had just transpired when a song was over. He sang "Ready For Love" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hylvMUtFyC8), pure and beautiful; he sang "When A Man Loves A Woman," (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQ4pNlvt0m8) which brought me to tears and the judges to their feet; he sang "It's A Man's World" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4babjH3QF8), infusing new and thrilling life into an old James Brown hit and bringing down the house. 

I glanced at a few online comments after Josh was eliminated. Some viewers said he's too gospel. One fellow opined, "Screaming soulful is not very marketable long term unless you do a James Brown tour." I wanted to ask that clown if he was deaf and blind. Josh Ledet is a chill-bump creator, a guy who saunters to the microphone like he's been performing all his life. Yes, there was some screaming. There was also a honey voice and brilliant phrasing and a marriage of something old and something new that  gave birth to something wildly exciting and entertaining. Even the musicians playing behind him in "It's A Man's World" couldn't hold back the smiles and head shakes when Josh slipped into that place where creatively-gifted people go, the place where no one and nothing else exists but you and whatever it is that sets your visionary spark on fire. 

I know Josh is going to do more than fine. He's probably signing a record contract right this minute and will go on to great success. Still, this isn't America's Next Big Success Story In Singing. American Idol is a talent show that supposedly is about picking the performer who's the best of the season's group. Phil Phillips and Jessica Sanchez are really really good, and any other year probably would have been the right choices as final two. But not this year. Josh Ledet is a star whose twinkle dimmed a little on Thursday because he didn't go on to win American Idol, which he should have. Voters got this one very wrong.

PS: 25,000 page views at The Squeaky Pen...thanks everybody!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Passing of An Icon...And An Era

The news came early this morning that my high school English teacher Betty Fagan had passed away. I knew she'd been ill so I wasn't surprised. I was, however, sad. More than sad. Heartbroken, really. Her death was not a shock. The shock came as my view of things, while standing there in the kitchen holding my coffee cup, tilted a little; as a small voice whispered: How is it possible that Mrs. Fagan is no longer of this world?

I have written about Betty Fagan on this blog before. Last year she received a well-deserved spot on the Wall of Fame of this town's school because of her renown as a teacher. In her stern way she taught us grammar and the importance of accomplished speech and writing. Betty took no prisoners in such matters: "Get it right or get out" was her way. She taught us literature in beautiful, articulate sentences. She graded our papers with a lethal red pen, a crimson weapon you could hear in her conversation even outside of class. There was no nonsense with Mrs. Fagan. School was work, we were the employees, and she was the boss. She was an English teacher, indeed; yet so much more. She was a force with which to reckon, a shaper of lives. She taught us the importance of education, of college, of hard work, of getting out there and getting on with it. When Betty Fagan walked into a room she owned it, and we listened. Her words could slice. And when the words were praise, no matter how infrequent, they were remembered for decades. She taught us the consequences of underachieving and the joys of really winning. She was one of a kind.

I don't know how many students Mrs. Fagan taught and influenced. Thousands, no doubt. Just today as the news of her passing spread across Facebook former students reacted, paraphrased below:

"It's amazing how many times I think of her, mostly revolving around grammar."
"Betty's passion for literature and correct composition was also passed onto her colleagues. She proofread graduate work for me and for others."
"I learned more grammar from her in my senior year than I learned in my entire K-12 education."
"She was a great lady who commanded respect...and deserved it."
"Such passion and drive she had to help her students learn and achieve. We used to say our papers would be bleeding with red ink after we turned in our first drafts. She was such an encouraging and helpful teacher to me and I will be forever grateful."
"She scared the crap out of me my first day in class...I bawled my eyes out. But I returned the next day and even took a class with her the very next year. What a lady."
"I owe her my college education -- she pointed me in Notre Dame's direction and gave me a good push to get me going."

One of the most meaningful comments for me, though, came from a friend in Minneapolis today:

"It feels that it is not just the passing of a person we admired, but the passing of an era."

Mrs. Fagan represented an era of education when students were pushed to excel without fear of lawsuits or reprisal by wailing parents that children should be handled delicately. Mrs. Fagan was not delicate. She approached her charges with terrifying honesty. Betty understood her job, which was to propel young and wavering people into a difficult world. She was there to help us, to guide us, to make us understand the difference between right and wrong. She was not there to make us all feel like winners, she was there to make us winners. She was there to teach us. And teach she did.

I'm sitting here alone this Monday night with a glass of wine and a box of tissues, toasting a woman who no matter how old, left us too soon. Thank you, Betty, for teaching me the complicated beauty of the English language. Thank you for criticizing and prodding and praising and inspiring. More than that, thank you for being the voice in my head every time I look at a blank sheet of "paper" on my computer screen. You may be gone from our lives in the traditional way, but you are alive in the minds of every student who was lucky enough to sit quaking before you in a classroom, and who knew you and loved you and asked your counsel years after classroom days were done. Here's to you, Mrs. Fagan: had you not been there for me yesterday, I would not be sitting here this night, weeping that you're gone and writing these words in what I hope are well-constructed sentences. Your red pen has at last been put away. But its influence -- and yours -- will never die.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Things That Are Irking Me

My mind is preoccupied with several annoyances this week. The first is Hillary Clinton's makeup, or rather, the lack thereof. Apparently Mrs. Clinton appeared at a press conference without makeup and wearing dark-rimmed glasses. This fact has caused the Internet media to go berserk. A google search of "Hillary Clinton No Makeup" produces dozen of pages of observations, commentary, photographs, and jokes about the Secretary of State having "the nerve" to show up sans any product on her face but "a hint of lipstick." One search result carried the headline "Putting on a Brave Face" while another shouted "Is This Appropriate?" At this very moment I can feel my eyes slipping into the crossed position. Who cares if Mrs. Clinton is wearing makeup or not? At least when "John Boehner Crying" is searched, about the same number of results pop up, suggesting that the blogosphere isn't bias, just ridiculous (although I'm much more concerned about the Speaker blubbering over traditional Irish music than I am that Hillary appeared without mascara).

Another annoyance: there's a commercial now selling cleaning products that clean products that clean. That is, there's a product that cleans the inside of high efficiency washing machines, and another product that cleans the inside of dishwashers. Aren't washing machines and dishwashers already full of water and soap? So why do we need something to clean something that swishes soap and water around? I get the sense this is Madison Avenue at its best. Next I guess will be a vacuum cleaner that needs to be vacuumed and a broom that needs to be swept.

It's possible I'm annoyed in general because I fell down my back steps on Monday and have a black and blue on my rump the size of Montana. I was wearing slippers in the rain, the steps were slick, and I am clearly an idiot. For a minute there, after bouncing basketball-style down the wooden stairs on my tailbone, I thought I might be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair taking sustenance from a tube, but my tough old peasant constitution came through and I walked away bruised but otherwise healthy. I admit at the time of the incident I was not wearing makeup. Maybe that was the problem. And I didn't even cry, although my clothes did get dirty so after I wash them in the washing machine I guess I'll need to wash the washing machine.

Is it me, or does anybody else think life out there is getting too complicated?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Magic of Ordinary Days

I took a drive through some countryside this morning, having to run a few errands in a town 40 miles away. Weather-wise, the morning was glorious: sunny, 66 degrees, spring perfection. I was in a contemplative mood I guess, taking in my surroundings with great interest. I drove along with the radio on, in blissful solitude but for Harry curled and sighing in the passenger seat. 

I've never been much of a Hallmark Movie Channel fan. The films shown are a bit too sappy for me: Notes From The Heart Healer, Kiss At Pine Lake, Taste of Romance, etc. Lovey-dovey stuff that isn't my cup of tea. There was one movie on this week, though, that caught my attention. I didn't watch it, but I was drawn to the title: The Magic of Ordinary Days. That's what today felt like. Fields with miles of yellow flowers that were not (I think) dandelions; tractors pulling plows through chocolate soil; horses lazing in meadows; windmills turning. Trees are finally budding out after a strange hot-cold-wet-cool April and, today, tulips were blooming in front yards. In one spot along the way I saw a twinkling lake, reminding me of a long-ago friend who referred to such scenes as "sparkly water days," like some god had flung a million diamonds on the surface. The sky was blue, the clouds were puffy, and I was happy for no good reason, just driving along with my little dog, senses wide open, glad to be breathing.

An ordinary day filled with magic. I'm not sure I can ask for much more than that. I'm not sure any of us can.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Great Alabaster Hope

It's Derby week. To most people in my circle that doesn't mean much, and it never used to mean much to me. But I have some friends to whom Derby week is a bit like Christmas week around here, and thanks to them I've come to appreciate thoroughbred horse racing. I'm a virgin about the sport, don't really understand whispered track conversations like "he's a mudder 'cause his mudder was a mudder." Not to mention I'm a bad gambler. Pretty much anything on which I bet causes a lighter pocketbook. Still, I appreciate the horse tradition. I always want to know which horses to watch in the Kentucky Derby because the Derby is the first breathtaking leg of the Triple Crown, a prize not awarded since Affirmed won by a nose at Belmont in 1978. The Derby is exciting because once we have a winner in Kentucky the run for the Triple Crown begins, and anything is possible.

I've been rooting for a Triple Crown winner since I attended my first Belmont in 2002 and shouted, along with a hundred thousand others, for War Emblem to take it all. I wanted to be there as the first Triple Crown winner crossed the finish line in 24 years. It was not to be. War Emblem stumbled coming out of the gate and never pulled himself together. I remember clutching my filmy ticket on which War Emblem's name was stamped next to "win," and then watching it flutter to the floor when he lost to long-shot Sarava, ultimately finishing 6th.

For the next few years there were other contenders. Funnycide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, and the UPS darling, Big Brown, who won the Derby and the Preakness and who I, with my utter lack of racing knowledge, predicted would be crowned at Belmont in 2008. I could feel it, I told my horse-wise friends. As I said, I'm not a good gambler. Not only did Big Brown fail to win at Belmont, he came in dead last, having been pulled up by his jockey and assigned the dubious honor of being the first Belmont favorite  of all time to finish at the back of the pack.

Now it's been 33 years since we've had a winner of the coveted triple prize, captured in the past by such familiar names as Man o' War, Seattle Slew, Citation, and the champion dubbed "Super Horse,"  Secretariat, who won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths in 1973 (click the following link to watch Secretariat's win http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cS4f6wiQJh4). While not an avid racing fan (although I may sound like one),  I long for a Triple Crown winner.  I want to see in real time, albeit on television, as the next champion speeds along those arcs of track and crosses the finish line. We are overdue.

And so it is that every year I ask my friend which horses to watch, turning my eye to the ponies the first weekend in May to the first weekend in June. This time the names are Bodemeister, Union Rags, and Gemologist. Then there's the white horse, unusual in a thoroughbred I'm told, whose name is Hansen. Tomorrow I'll be cheering for him, for no other reason than he is a horse of a different color in a field of bays and chestnuts, a gleaming winner whose job it is dash through his paces in three springtime events that bring throngs of roaring fans to Louisville, Baltimore, and Elmont, Long Island. White horses are rare, and while technically Hansen is considered "a gray," his milky color brings to mind horses of tradition and legend. George Washington rode a white horse, as did Napoleon, Lady Godiva, the Lone Ranger, and Gandalf, from Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings. White horses carry mythical and magical qualities, representing power and purity and glory. What glory indeed for a snowy steed to win the greatest prize in horse racing after three-plus decades of waiting.

First, though, Hansen must earn his roses at "the most exciting two minutes in sports." His flash of white for a mile and a quarter will set the stage for what might become the most exciting three races in a long time, races that feature an alabaster horse charging into history. Fingers here in central New York, far from the hats and stables and hopes and dreams and mint juleps of Churchill Downs, are very crossed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Your "Bad" Is Your Language, Honey

A friend of mine overheard her daughter talking on the phone recently. At one point in the conversation, the 21-year-old daughter, who was speaking to a potential employer, said "Oh, my bad." My friend nearly keeled over.

There are so many expressions that drive me crazy, two of the most offensive to my sensitive ears being awesome and amazing because it seems like EVERYTHING now is either awesome or amazing, from the Grand Canyon (which actually is both awesome and amazing) to a stick of gum (which is neither). It's quite possible, though, that "my bad" has replaced the two A-words in making my eyeballs jitter out of their sockets.

For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past decade, "my bad" means "I'm to blame," or "my mistake," a modern version of the Latin mea culpa. Interested in the expression's origin, I was surprised to learn "my bad" popped up in the culture's vernacular in 1970 as a street term, urban lingo used during informal basketball games after making a bad pass. The movie "Clueless" pushed the term into our everyday world in the mid-1990s when Alicia Silverstone uttered it while, in character, she was learning to drive. A few sources suggest that street lingo, which pre-Internet stayed in the street, now spreads virus-like into mainstream culture. Personally, I wish "my bad" had stayed put with the basketball players. Every time I hear it the enamel peels off my teeth, maybe because unlike awesome and amazing -- which are actual words that at least make sense -- "my bad" sounds like something a toddler might say after peeing its pants. Whoopi Goldberg said it recently on The View and I had to change the channel. As for my friend's daughter: if I'd been the potential employer and heard a twenty-something say my bad in a phone interview, I can guarantee I'd have hung up and turned to the next job candidate.

I have a secret desire to try to torture the young by using their own expressions as much as possible every day, all day, day and night. I want to tell them their hair is awesome and their shoes are awesome and their jewelry is awesome and their car is amazing and their make-up is amazing and their dog is amazing and oh, my bad when I finally crack like Kathy Bates in "Fried Green Tomatoes" and bang my car into theirs when they don't even notice that the English language is spiraling down the drain.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum