Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Things You Do When You're Not Doing That Thing You Do

Avocations, hobbies and enthusiasms add a lot to life beyond work; you are in control more, you can put your real self into it, you can live larger than you're normally allowed to. Some people need these escape venues a lot; others like the normal pattern of home/work/family just fine. If you're possessed of an overactive imagination, you'd be of the first type. Fishing is a Zen-like, simple pasttime; fly tackle and boats are expensive but it can be done very simply just as well. Surf casting always looked like fun to me; once in North Carolina we saw people pull in several very big fish of unknown types, and they were definitely looking forward to a delightful meal with friends and family. Tough for the fish, but good times for their captors.

My hobby for decades was finding, collecting and enjoying books and records, but I had to stop a while ago or rent storage space! After that I read everything in the local libraries of interest (to me), and the internet unfortunately makes finding rarities too easy to be fun. Once I looked for a book for over thirty years before finding it -- quite satisfying.

Nancy's avocation has and probably always will be traveling...in search of the perfect beach, blue sky and sapphire water; an outdoor massage under a billowing white tent being a good way to while away an afternoon in such a spot. She would be very happy never to come back, too.

I needed a creative outlet after my time in the hectic world of exhibits was over, and found an exciting one in 18th-century reenacting. The social and political history of the Enlightenment era, along with its material culture, had always drawn me in, so I joined a local group which portrayed colonial militia, French-Canadian militia, and the Pennsylvania State Regiment (all in the 1754 - 1781 period). Ancestors were in the French and Indian War and the Revolution (one, wounded at Brandywine, hid in a culvert, survived and lived to an old age), so a direct connection was there. Zacharias Reiss and his family constructed the only purpose-built Continental military hospital at Yellow Springs, PA, and a young daughter, Susannah, offered a drink to Washington during the retreat from the defeats around Philadelphia (addressing him as "Your Majesty," to which he replied, "There are no kings in America, little lady.")

Above is a picture of French Regulars and Marines relaxing to music inside old Fort Niagara. Despite a soggy night battle with the British and colonial Rangers (wool doesn't dry out too fast), while there we really enjoyed hearing real French Canadians sing and play in the very spot their distant ancestors did in the 1750's. With everything either original or documented reproductions, and only fireplaces and candles, you really felt the part.

In the other picture, French militia (armed ordinary citizens and farmers of New France, a small but formidable guerilla force that, along with their numerous native allies, kicked the British Empire in the seat for years), advance across the field brushing the lobsterbacks aside. We loved pouring down wooded hills to attack a British wagon train or column, with the Indians screaming, smeared in red and black paint, tomahawks whirling in the air. At Old Mill Village, the spectators, led along a dark mountain trail by the Brits, played the part of colonials marching from an attacked fort to safety -- or so they thought until 40 of us jumped up and scared the s--- out of them! The best part of the scenario was a real Abenaki Indian who stopped the train to demand (loudly in his own language) the release of a bedraggled French prisoner as a ruse to set up the ambush. With our commander shouting orders in French, and the woods quickly filling up with pungent white smoke, we roared out with each shot, "Vive le Roi!"

In addition to learning a lot more about events of the era, the actual locations where they took place, and the realities of the mid-18th century world, I learned hand sewing and leather work (got the holes in my hand to prove it). I sold my reproduction 1734 Tulle Armory musket (it was copied after the only one left in existence), but I still have the hickory-handled tomahawk, in case His Grace King Louis should need me again.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

More Little Surprises at the River

Every year when we go to the ArtsFest in Riverside Park along the river, there's always something musical that's new, and delightful. A couple of years ago an engaging dude from California was selling, and of course playing, his replicas of Jerry Garcia's iconic guitars, the Tiger and the Wolf. They looked and sounded great.

A jazz sitar player returned this year, playing along with one of his many CDs. The most mesmerizing duo appeared only one year; they were a willowy couple who played wind and string instruments and sang their fairy-tale songs. I really should have bought a CD of theirs -- just beautiful aural art.

This year's treat was a local lady who teaches a special children's music program designed in Princeton, NJ, called Music Together. She was playing what looked like an old '50s sci-fi B-movie prop of a flying saucer! It is called a Hang Drum (it means "hand") and sounds somewhere between a steel pan drum and a harp and was created by two musical artists in Switzerland. These "melodious tuned steel idiophones" are, it seems, handmade in limited quantities and very hard to get. Played either in the lap or on a stand using fingers and hands instead of mallets, different models have a variety of scales.

We were there early in the day this year and thus missed the many bands who play from afternoon into the evening. The eccentric soloists are so much easier to see and hear before the crowds fill every inch of sidewalk and street, and they create vivid memories for this tourist slouching through culture.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Little Surprises

I knew today was going to be a good day. Yesterday's unnatural cold and clouds were being swept away by a suddenly more generous Mom Nature as I headed out to the mail box, and I saw a bluebird (that only happens once, maybe twice, a year). Down the hill toward town, two flickers rocketed up from the grass, their little red Cardinal caps clearly visible in that brief second. Growing between the curb and Second Street, a weed displayed a cascade of church bell-like white flowers, as handsome as his cousins living more luxurious lives in their mulched flower beds.
I wasn't prepared for a life-size Tin Man in the yard of a little brick house, chopping wood with his gleaming chromed axe! The facial expression, the tin bow tie, the bend of the knees -- it was extraordinarily well done. His oil funnel hat was the perfect size.
The other day we went to the Camp Hill library to read magazines, but since I had left my glasses at home, I wandered down to the basement where on a table there are usually free magazines and books to take away. I could hardly believe it when I discovered an old book I've been searching for, and it was in perfect condition. What a find! It's Summer Wind, by Norman Douglas, published in 1917, a somewhat fussy Edwardian novel set on Capri wherein European gentlemen and women generally waste their time and yours being verbose and self-consciously witty (very much like several deservedly forgotten works of Robert Louis Stevenson ). In the second half, however, the ironic treatments of aristocracy, culture, and religion are well worth getting to. Capri has been better described in The Story of San Michele, but I'll read anything about the islands of Our Sea.
The reason I pounced on it is that it is on THE LIST that I carry around of music, books and movies recommended by other writers or artists I've enjoyed -- it's sort of a long-term game to find these things. I have been disappointed, though: The Stones of Summer and A Clockwork Orange, for example, were highly recommended, and they gagged me. Lawrence Durrell, resident of several Mediterranean isles and author of loving books about them, mentioned Summer Wind and another called Granite Island, which I have never found a trace of. Nor have I found Durrell's own Bitter Lemons. While I already have a pretty large collection of books about islands, I must keep searching for these obscurities, for the game will go on.
And a little surprise can turn up anywhere!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Boo Boo

This, gentle reader, is what you get when you don't do tasks the right way even though you know full well what the correct procedure is. Hand sanding of rough wood can be done without collecting a nice fat splinter under the fingernail, but you must pay careful attention to each change of direction.
After spending a lovely evening at the urgent care center in Mechanicsburg, Nancy treated me to ice cream at nearby Rakestraw's, which has been keeping the locals satisfied on summer nights for about 100 years. When we first moved here 30 years ago, we'd walk the few blocks over there quite often. It was good to return, and the boo-boo felt better.

Still Getting Better

I think we're on a roll (Kaiser? Portuguese?). Last November we experienced that thrill inside called hope, but hopes have been crushed before. Could the pendulum of time and events be returning, in its eternal sweeping arc, to a sweet spot? Just may be:
Bruce the Boss will be playing tonight in Hershey. I'm looking forward to some rave reviews and action pictures in the paper tomorrow morning! "Thunder Road" was #1 in a recent local poll, and was #1 out of all songs in last year's voting on WXPN-FM (Philadelphia). Good choice; but they're all good!
Yesterday, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology downtown graduated its first class.
Old buildings nearby have been renovated for housing, one building just for international students. The Starbucks closed early this year, but I'll bet someone will open a local hangout (as I recall, we VCU students majored in that more than anything...)
An environmental tech center, The Green Center, opens soon as a partnership between HACC (the community college) and GreenWorks Development (think of that -- a green developer!) in Midtown (a pretty skeezy area right now). Developing, teaching and applying green technologies will be the mission. Those are missionaries I can see doing some real good.
Even old New Cumberland is bustin' out: the first annual Greenfest will be held on June 27, with an organic food expo in the fire hall. The well-known Apple Festival draws thousands with its food offerings; hope this event is as least partly as successful. The Main Street Project was completed in the few blocks of downtown a short while ago -- new sidewalks edged with brick pavers, new trees, and really nice streetlights, but the news is that it's being extended up and down Third Street (where The Local Beat is), Second, and Reno too. Doing my part, I finished the foundation patching and wood trim sanding/priming today at the Beat and will be back to do the painting when the new sidewalk and street paving are done next week.
Think globally but rock locally!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Local Beat

One of my favorite, and pretty innocent, vices is spending quality time in coffee houses and cafes (this tale already spun in a previous post, Cafe Society). The recently opened "The Local Beat" on Third St. in New Cumberland called out to be investigated by your intrepid reporter, so I'm taking advantage of the break in rainy days to do just that. The young owners, musician Joe "Catfish" Vandall and chef David Davare Jr. have been working for seven months to salvage the old Cumberland Tavern, sitting closed for six years, with the goal of bringing together art, live music and intriguing food. Not easy to open a business right now, especially in the discretionary spending category, and while they are lucky or skilled in getting press coverage (all good notices), daytime business seems nonexistent. Music nights have been successful, and groups from out of state are coming in (Joe's mom even plays violin in his own roots music band). The nearest college is the new Harrisburg University downtown (that would seem to be more of a target audience than the locals), but they are probably mostly city commuters without cars, unfortunately.
About 13 artists' work is displayed inside, the most striking of which are Rebecca Adey's cut-paper portraits of familiar faces (Johnny Cash, Twiggy, Marilyn). The other area cafe with a similar ambience (but not as bohemian), The Crimson Frog, has a tiny stage designed for solo acts; here the stage takes up the entire back end and is well-equipped with P.A. and board. It says they're serious about the music as an integral, essential part of the enterprise.
Haven't tried the food yet, but David has years of experience and is fluent in Asian, Latin and California-style fusion of the two (i.e., Thai chicken satay and carnitas). I'm helping out with sprucing up the exterior to help in attracting some customers, and plants and outdoor seating are on the way. If you could operate this as a hobby instead of worrying about the bills and overhead, it would be a lot of fun (but who could do that?) .

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Saturday brought two things which worked well together: good weather and a discount coupon for Highland Gardens. I was hoping all the plants were in stock that we wanted; not so when I checked last week -- and now they were! Red fountain grass and super bells for the big pot in front of the garage; 3 tomato plants, one for the pot on the deck and two for the garden at Zach's; multicolored vincas for the spot behind the barberry bush. The garden is small, as is our space around home, so a little looks like a lot. There were so many onion sets in the bunch they're planted in three different places.
For whimsy, a pack of jack o'lantern pumpkin seeds was planted in a corner bed near Zach's carport, with a bag of compost to speed them on their way. He's always loved pumpkins, and may have a bumper crop of his own this year.
The gates are in on the raised bed garden, but still need work, and the chicken wire needs to be cut and stapled on them and around the three sides. My old spring-action stapler (the young studs and studettes on all the HGTV and DIY Network shows would toss it in the trash where it belongs -- so old school) won't sink a staple in butter, much less yellow pine, so I anticipate that "there will be blood." And smashing them in with a hammer. And smashing a finger or two.
Years ago I had read "Square Foot Gardening," and got inspired by a new edition I borrowed from a friend. The string pattern in the photo above defines the square foot areas that are used instead of rows, but the essential element is not using soil, or even good topsoil, as it is always full of weed seeds, clay and bugs. You instead make a one-time investment buying peat moss, coarse vermiculite, and 5 different types of humus and composted manure, mixing them together 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3. The result should both drain readily and retain moisture (a seeming contradiction), and not support weeds -- and it does. The only fertilizer needed is adding compost when you plant a square again, and watering is done by the spot method, closely around each plant. The fencing keeps our vegetarian animal friends out. No tilling, weeding, or excess watering. Seems to be working so far.
The lilac out back at home is fading, but its romantic perfume still drifts in the open windows. I wish there were room for about 150 petunia plants, but the two pots' worth are a pleasure to see every day. B.B. Bunny gets three flowers a day as a treat -- I guess they are pretty low-calorie.
A front-page feature in Sunday's newspaper announced that gardening is big this year and that Burpee Seeds east of here in Bucks County can't keep up with the demand. Another article states we are now, as a suddenly more sane nation, saving around 4%, compared to minus 2.5% in 2005. I didn't think I'd live to see it, but there has been much pain and some substantial gain as our collective wagon veered off the highway and maybe found a better road. Paper megaprofits, McMansions, feeding the greed vs. fat tomatoes and new savings accounts!
It's the growing season.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Magic Summer Night with Frank and Dean

Since it looks like we're all going to spend this week damp and rained upon day after day, I'd like to take you away on a fine adventure. Way far away, to Florence, Italy, one stop on our 60th birthday celebration around the Mediterranean (#1 on my bucket list). If we ever go back, we could easily spend a week or two just in Firenze. In my sights while there were finding what's considered the best gelato stand in Italy and Galileo's house, both south of the river; but we couldn't fit them in. We did find a trattoria I had seen recommended in an internet post, after getting quite lost one evening, the Trattoria del Gato e La Volpa (pictured second above), the name referencing Pinnochio, whose author lived nearby in Collodi. It was filled with students, owing to its policy of a 10% discount for them, and most were English-speakers. Small, almost claustrophobic, the 16th-century building had walls thick as a castle's. We continued our tradition of trying as much Italian wine every night as was possible; the food was great and the bill small. Abbondanza!
I was looking forward to two scheduled trips: the first to Fattoria del Poggio, an old family-run (those terms are redundant in Italy: everything is!) self-sufficient farm, where a midday feast was laid on under white tents while the breeze wafted in scents of bay laurel, basil, and trebbiano grapes. They produced several types each of bread, meats, wine and grappa on site, and seemingly wanted our bunch of revelers to use it all up. We tried our best.
The evening excursion was to I Tre Pini, a farmette/outdoor restaurant south of the city (pictured first above) in a community called Impruenta. Both of these places mainly host tour groups, but we weren't in that touristy bubble at all; we had bonded while getting bombed at the Fattoria, loved our guide Micaela, and were having a ball every day! Somehow the bus got down the narrow medieval street and loaded us up in front of the hotel, we crossed the Arno River and stopped at Michaelangelo Park to admire the city, and the perfect Renaissance estate nearby, at sunset. Threading through the villages, waving to a passing Maserati, we admired this happy land and pulled up to I Tre Pini and its extensive gardens, tented pavilions, and were greeted by the gray-haired owner. He explained that the food, the olive oil, the wine were all produced here -- sit anywhere, the music is about to start. A guitarist and a singer circulated about, as did about 100 bottles of wine -- Venus may have been born on the shores of Cyprus, but I believe the lady lived here now. About half our group were Italian-Americans from New York/New Jersey, and they must have felt especially embraced by this tree-hugged, vine-covered, music-filled paradise. We were out of time, living in the liquid moment.
Not willing to let go of that, when we boarded the bus much later into the night someone suggested using the P.A. system for a sing along. A fiftyish gentleman who looked the part offered some Sinatra and Dean Martin songs while the crowd roared approval, and we were off. All the way back through the now sleeping villages, "My Way," "That's Amore," "O Sole Mio," "New York New York," and "Ave Maria" were turned out with uninhibited enthusiasm.
Oh, what a night.