Sunday, September 27, 2009

Folksinger John McCutcheon

Last night we drove up to the little town of Homer, NY for a concert. I'm sure you've never heard of Homer but don't feel bad, neither has anyone else. However, an old church there houses the Center for the Arts of Homer. We go there several times a year to hear musicians we wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to hear and are never disappointed. We've found a little restaurant we like in the nearby town of Cortland, and enjoy a wonderful evening.

The entertainer last night was a folksinger, John McCutcheon. He has six Grammy nominations to his credit, but lost every time so he refers to himself as the Susan Lucci of the Grammies. He's an amazing man who writes books as well as songs and plays the banjo, guitar, hammered dulcimer and autoharp masterfully. He is a born storyteller. His stories are of the human condition, things we can all relate to in some way, some that make the listener smile and others that make us cry. He's also a very funny man.

Years ago we lived in a suburb of Chicago and regularly drove to Woodstock, Ill. to a similar place, the Woodstock Opera House. It was closer to us, and wasn't located in the "snow belt" as Homer is, so we went to more programs there. I don't know if it still exists, but if you look hard enough you'll find these venues in unlikely little towns all across the country. They are usually inexpensive nights out, but more than worth the price. You won't regret supporting them, becoming a member if you can, and enjoying the variety of entertainment they offer.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Out of Control Athletes

My husband and I are season ticket holders for both men's and women's basketball at Binghamton University 20 miles north of us in NY. It's a Division I team that last season got as far as the NCAA tournament. Very exciting, even though our first game there was against Duke so it was also our last game in the tournament.

Our only problem with the team has been disciplinary issues with some of the stars of the team, young men recruited and given a second chance by our coach to show their talents and try to straighten out their lives. We were concerned about the behavior of some of them, and now the chickens have come home to roost. Six of the best players and upcoming players of the men's team have been booted out for criminal problems, attitude, and just plain troublemaking.

Lois DeFleur, president of the university and #1 basketball fan, finally put her foot down and rightly so. She called in the AD and told him she would not tolerate any more problems from the men's team. I guess the AD and the head coach were sick and tired of babysitting too, because the axe fell almost immediately.

You know, this isn't just a problem at BU. What is it with college and professional athletes across the country? Their enormous egos and belief that they don't have to live by the same rules as the rest of us poor schmucks is threatening to make me a FORMER sports fan. I've loved sports all my life (not participating since I grew up in the 40s and 50s when young ladies didn't do those things) but watching others. My mother and mother-in-law were also sports fans but the men in the families weren't so much. Strange I guess, but that's the way it is.

I'm already not watching baseball much because I'm tired of the steroids scandals and tantrums. I never watch professional basketball because they just don't play as a team anymore. Everything is me, me, me! College sports are my favorite and I still have hope, but I believe every college and university needs to clean house like BU is doing. We don't need any more athletes with mouths bigger than their talents, and with complete disregard for the law. Michael Vick is surprised he isn't coming back as a starting QB? Plaxico Burress is upset because his fellow inmates in prison aren't suitably impressed with him? T.O. has bounced from team to team because he can't keep his mouth shut? These are all football because it's football season, but basketball is soon to follow with its own examples.

I think the answer is to stop treating high school and college athletes like they are so special that they don't have to live by the rules. We baby them and help them get by with things, and then we wonder why they still act like babies when they are grown men making millions. The athlete who lives his life as a good person is so rare as to be newsworthy, on the rare occasion when the media isn't busy reporting on the foibles and crimes of the rest. This must change. Actually fan behavior needs to change too but that's a topic for another day.

In short, congratulations to Lois DeFleur for standing up for what's right. We will support her through this necessarily "building" year and in the future. Although last year was fun, we prefer to have a team we can really be proud of.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

No Books in House!

Recently while I was cooking I turned on HGTV to see what new design horrors they've come up with. They were showing a woman in a beautiful house with bookcases on each side of a fireplace in her living room. She was saying, "I don't know what to do with those shelves. They absolutely have to go!"

Well, after I picked myself up off the floor, I had to take a close look at this house. As far as I could see there were no books and no magazines at all in the house except for the children's schoolbooks in their rooms. I was flabbergasted. Not only did I wonder how anyone could live without any sort of reading material in the house, I worried about the example this set for the children in the family.

I've always thought that my parents were responsible for turning me into an avid reader and that my good grades in school were because of my father's example. Both of my parents read the local newspaper every day and on Sundays we bought the Chicago Tribune. I don't remember how old I was when I took up the habit but I was quite young. Both of my parents read books as well. My father preferred technical books, but they joined the Book of the Month Club when I was a small child and both of them read the bestsellers. They subscribed to magazines such as National Geographic and the Saturday Evening post. There was always something new to read.

My father was a self-made man who missed out on college because of the Depression. In lieu of that experience, he took every math course offered by the correspondence school at the University of Illinois. I remember Mom and I being quiet nearly every evening because he was studying, so I grew up thinking lifelong learning was a desirable trait.

They took me to the library to get a card and borrow books, they put bookshelves in my bedroom and gave me some of the shelves beside the fireplace for my books, and I don't ever remember them saying I should put a book aside to do anything else. I was perhaps overly sheltered from outdoor activities because my mother was afraid I would get hurt, but they never censored my reading. (One comical memory is that my mother liked to read the old pulp detective magazines of the 40s but she hid them from my father knowing he wouldn't approve. It was her only deception in a long marriage.)

My own house is overflowing with books, a fact my father would shake his head at. He was big on discipline. I've had a big effect on my husband. He wasn't a reader when we married but now takes so many magazines concerning his work and his hobbies that the mail carrier is about to go on strike. No regrets. I think this is the only way to live and I thank my parents immensely for starting me on the right path.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Henry Gibson and his Flower are Gone

Do you remember Henry Gibson on "Laugh-in" years ago? He was such a little guy and he would stand there holding a flower while he recited poetry in a completely earnest fashion. He was one of those few people, like George Gobel (which I'm not sure I spelled correctly), who could just stand in front of a camera and completely break me up. I heard yesterday that Henry died and I felt the loss even though I hadn't seen him on television in years.

"Laugh-In" was a rare television show. It was as giddy and silly as Goldie Hawn's giggle, it used repetitive gags, but it was so funny I couldn't miss it. I loved Arte Johnson's dirty old man who regularly gotten beaten over the head with a purse, and even the repeated "Sock it to me!" never ceased to make me laugh. Remember Richard Nixon of all people appearing in the hole in the wall and saying, "Sock it to me," deadpan?

I've loved Goldie Hawn ever since. No one ever had such an infectious giggle. But little Henry Gibson gone? It's just hard to believe.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kancamagus Highway, a NH Gem

In yesterday's paper I read an article by Holly Ramer of The AP about one of our all-time favorite places, the 34.5 mile long Kancamagus Highway from Conway to Lincoln, New Hampshire. Turns out it is 50 years old this year.

The highway follows the achingly beautiful Swift River most of the way with many spots to pull off and explore. You can also hike a variety of trails from parking areas along the way. Fall is the best time to go when the foliage in the surrounding mountains is spectacular.

When we were first married, we lived in southern Maine and quite often went to North Conway; in fact we were there for our wedding night. We would stay in a motel that had a view of Mount Washington, maybe see a play at one of the small theaters, enjoy the shops in the village, and spend most of one day on the Kancamagus (the last part pronounced like "Saugus").

I remember lazy days clambering across the rocks in the river or sitting with a book while my husband fished. One year we stayed at a campground and had the fish he caught for breakfast - not my cup of tea for that meal but when in Rome . . . It was proof that anything cooked on a campfire tastes heavenly, well at least good. (What can I say? We were young and in love. Now we're old and in love and I'm quite a bit more picky about what I eat.)

There used to be a breakfast restaurant in North Conway that served walnut waffles and a place called The Scottish Lion where we had wonderful dinners after a day of outdoor activity. Things have changed there; North Conway is now known for outlet shopping centers, one of which took the place of the motel with the view of Mount Washington. Lots of chain restaurants have moved in as well and the atmosphere in the village is different.

However, get out of town and you're back in the New Hampshire we always loved, especially the Kancamagus.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hal Borland, Naturalist/Writer

As promised, I'm writing more about Hal Borland, a naturalist/writer best known for his books and his Sunday nature piece on the editorial page of The New York Times for many years.

When Hal was a young boy his parents homesteaded in eastern Colorado, a tale told in his book "High, Wide, and Lonesome." Like most homesteaders, they had a hard life. It was just too much for a couple and their young son to handle. All it took was bad weather or insects to ruin their meager crops and thus their livelihood. In winter his dad would work in town, too far to come home, and Hal and his mother, a cow and a dog endured the winter isolated. He often awoke in the morning with snow covering the foot of his bed. A Christmas treat was a bowl of snow with maple syrup drizzled over it. Thanks to a cowboy who came through occasionally, they had lots of good magazines to read and he learned to write from them. In summer he and his dog spent hours watching a gopher town, the beginning of a lifetime observing nature.

In 1915 his family gave up homesteading and moved to Flagler, Colorado where his father bought and edited the local newspaper. Hal learned the newspaper business from the ground up, and his book, "Country Editor's Boy," tells the story of those years with colorful anecdotes of itinerant typesetters (many alcoholics) who spent periods of time working for his dad. Afterward he went off to college, into journalism, and followed his career east.

He wrote some western novels, quite a few short stories for magazines with his wife Barbara, books about dogs who "chose" to live with them, and many books about the natural world all around us.

I had grown up in a family who never went outdoors unless forced to, but in my late 20s I was introduced to Hal Borland's books which inspired me to get outside and see what he was writing about. I learned to love hiking, camping, and canoeing, and I began to notice the wildlife and plants around my home. He opened a whole new world to me.

His last years were spent in a house by the Housatonic River in northwestern Connecticut near the Massachusetts border. I drove past the house once and saw him riding a mower, but didn't stop because I didn't want to intrude. I've kicked myself ever since. A few years after he died, I wrote a piece for a newspaper in Mass. where he had been a regular columnist about how much I missed him. His widow saw it, wrote me a nice note, and subsequently I went to work for her as an assistant for a couple years. By that time she was an invalid and we worked on a rewrite of one of her novels, more as a way to keep her mind busy in a difficult time than anything. We were bonded by our feelings for Hal.

I owe a great deal to this man I never met. Barbara Borland gave me his candle holder made by Ute Indians that he had known. It is one of my most prized possessions. I encourage anyone to read Hal Borland's books. They are funny, interesting, and educational without being preachy. You'll never view your property the same way again.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Swallows are Gone!

On Sunday morning I turn first, even before the comics, to Rick Marsi's column in Binghamton's Press and Sun Bulletin. He is a naturalist in the vein of Hal Borland who wrote a nature column for The New York Times for years and who I greatly admired. (Someday I'll write more about Borland.) Nature in your own backyard is Marsi's forte, and he writes often about kayaking on the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers too.

This morning he wrote about birds leaving the area in early September, especially swallows, and I realized what I should have noticed earlier. The reason it is suddenly so buggy around here is that the purple martins and barn swallows are gone. Just the other day there were orderly rows of them on the wires overlooking our back yard, swooping down across the pond, and giving me an aerobatics show while I mowed. Now, nothing! As much as I enjoy them, I guess I was just too busy to realize they weren't here.

All I'm seeing now are blue jays, sparrows, and occasionally a few starlings in our yard. The hummingbirds aren't here anymore, the red wing backbirds have gone away, and all that's left cruising the sky are vultures and sometimes a hawk. I'm amazed that it took Marsi's column to bring all this to my attention, but then he often makes me see things I would have overlooked.

I have two of Marsi's books and I hope he never stops writing his column. If you live outside this area, look for his work on the Press & Sun-Bulltin website,

Friday, September 4, 2009

Warm Days, Chilly Nights, and Football!

We're embarking upon my favorite time of the year. I see hints of color in the trees on our mountain, the school bus takes the children to school each morning and their dogs doze in the sun waiting for that yellow bus to reappear. Meanwhile it's quiet, or would be except that we adults are busy catching up on our yard work and we have a crew finishing up a section of stone wall along the front of our property.

We sleep soundly these chilly nights with the bedroom windows open to take full advantage. I fall asleep listening to the chirp, hum and buzz of crickets, katydids, and cicadas, and occasionally the loud twang of a bullfrog in our pond who sounds like a bass guitar with a broken string. Looking up, I can see a quadrillion stars despite the security light on our outbuilding. There isn't much night traffic on our country road; it's the best time to live here. Oh, we might get a rare whiff of a skunk passing through or hear the snarl of an animal or the cough of a startled deer, but mostly it is just peaceful.

During the day our only problem is gnats who seem to be having a last fling before cold weather. Otherwise it's pleasant getting the bushes all trimmed and catching up with the work we had to let slide during this unusually wet summer. The flower garden has to be cleaned up as well and the netting taken down from the blueberry bushes. There is always plenty to do to fill the days outside before we hunker down for the cold winter.

My husband has been cutting the fields. He won't let me drive the tractor, much as I would like to, and he was too busy earlier to brushhog the fields. Now it's looking very nice; almost like an extension of our lawn. I'm too busy to cut the fields anyway; I have a section of stone wall to repair thanks to a woodchuck who burrowed into loose stones in the middle of it. I also need to do something about a forsythia bush that was damaged in a storm and trim the rose bushes.

I intend to post some pictures of our beautiful new stone wall and our property but I'm an old geezer who still uses a 35 mm camera and has the pictures developed so you'll have to wait until I finish the roll of film. I don't have a cell phone or a digital camera - still live in the stone age.

I'm not really a country person having grown up in a midwestern city. Actually when we moved here 14 years ago it was my first experience with living in the country. As you can see, though, I have enjoyed many aspects of life in the country, things I will miss when the day comes that we must leave here. Changes come very gradually to this area so even though there is more traffic, more houses, and far fewer working farms, it is still "the countryside."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Joan Baez: Feet of Clay

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock I've been reading Joan Baez's autobiography published in 1987. This is a book I picked up at a book sale quite some time ago and apparently there was a good reason it stayed in my pile of books to be read. I wasn't at Woodstock, you understand, although I've heard that if you remember Woodstock, you weren't there. No, that drug scene wasn't for me at all; I was too old to be drawn into it.

At any rate, I always loved Joan Baez's voice and her songs, and I admired her involvement with the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam-War movement. I thought she was very brave to stand on the front lines of those movements and risk the possible consequences of her actions.

I should never have read this autobiography. Now I know that not only was she quite often just a hanger-on at civil rights and antiwar photo ops, she seems to have been more directed by her feelings for a certain man than by real commitment to a cause. Her admiration for Martin Luther King, for instance, was what led to her appearance at Selma. I do respect the fact that she admitted to being scared to death, so she understood the danger, but in some of her other adventures she appears to have just blithely gone with the crowd.

It seems like she was always playing a role, usually in the company of her current man. When she tired of that particular lifestyle, she gave away all of her clothing and began a new role with a new man. She was led by her libido rather than intelligent opinions.

I definitely did not agree with her trip to Hanoi during the war. She and Jane Fonda each suffered a severe lack of judgement when they decided to visit Hanoi. The only thing that Joan appears to have learned during that trip is that she didn't like spending time in bomb shelters while our guys were trying to bomb the heck out of the city.

What really turns me off, though, is her ego. The main point of the section of the book on her trip to Poland to meet Lech Waleska is how the people there adored her. I don't think I've ever read a biography or autobiography of a person I had admired and finished the book with a distinct dislike of that person. I still love her singing, always will, but my admiration for her as a person is gone.