Archive for October, 2011

The Fire Down Below

October 27, 2011

Recently I enjoyed a successful episode with a fireplace, and it reminded me of a less happy confrontation a number of years ago. In 1978, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was lucky enough to rent a small house on Lake Samish, just south of Bellingham. It was the first time I had ever had my very own fireplace, and I was determined to get a fire going as soon as possible.

Having grown up in the Washington DC suburbs, to look out a window and see a beautiful lake was a completely new and wonderful sensation. Every room had a window that either looked out on the lake or had a view of trees — it was a gorgeous setting. The fireplace was icing on the cake.

There were logs in the basement, provided by the generous landlord, and I brought up an armload. I was excited at the prospect of sitting by a roaring fire, watching the flames dance and listening to the music of wood popping and crackling. I located a box of matches and inspected the pile of logs, brown cylinders laden with potential thermal energy. Starting to get a little nervous, I grabbed a hefty log and layed it onto the grate.

Then I pulled out a match and lit it.

Many matches later, the log still sat there, looking at me indifferently. What was I doing wrong? Tom, the landlord, had shown me how to open the chimney flue damper, so I had taken care of that. (If you didn’t open the damper, the room would fill with smoke, and a room filled with smoke is looked down upon in House and Garden.) Unfortunately, I had no Boy Scout badges in fire-building, because I had never been a Boy Scout. The suburban homes where I grew up had furnaces instead of fireplaces, so I was out in the cold as far as flammable skills were concerned.

Then it hit me: newspaper!

That was the missing link — I needed newspaper. Now, news print was what I had in abundance, due to my addiction to newspapers. There was a big stack of papers in the corner, filled with articles I had not yet read. I grabbed a New York Times and began to crumple the front page into a ball. C’mon, fire!

After a while there was a pile of burnt up newspaper ashes below the log, which was still sitting quite contendedly on the grate. Wisely I changed tactics, and began to construct twisted configurations of newspaper, since clearly a spherical shape was not conducive to thermodynamic success.

That didn’t work either. After a while I had gone through most of the matches, and the pile of newspaper ash had grown, but still there was a paucity of fire. This was becoming a contest.

About that time, Scott Sandsberry showed up for a visit and took one look at the fireplace. To my chagrin he dissolved into laughter, forming a sort of lumpy, reddish rug as he rolled on the floor. It’s pretty embarrassing when your oldest friend laughs at you.

“You moron! First of all you need to split the logs, and second of all you need to use kindling!”

This reminded me of the time I had tried to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. The first line of the recipe was, “Start with a roux.” What the hell’s a “roux”?

What the hell is kindling?

Scott explained patiently that kindling is little sticks. To build a fire you need a small pile of sticks in a rough approximation of a teepee, over a core of balled up newspaper. Then as the kindling takes and the nascent fire begins to grow, you add more fuel in the form of bigger and bigger pieces of wood. The logs needed to be split in order for the interior to be exposed, since that inner surface would catch fire sooner than the outer layer of protective bark. OK, let’s get this puppy going.

Soon we had a proper fire, and Scott consented to joining me for a celebratory steak dinner, which we ate in front of the fireplace.

Not only did I learn that a good fire needs the proper preparation, but a fire is even better when shared with old friends.

Mixed Up Doubles

October 22, 2011

(With apologies to and warmest regards for P.G. Wodehouse.)

It was a cool September morning as Mr Burns sat in his favorite chair, from which he could see a sweeping portion of the golf course. He saw the “Steam Train”, a well-known regular foursome, working its way up the ninth hole. Mr Burns shook his head in disgust and turned his gaze elsewhere, noting that Ms Lowery and Mr MacDonald were walking down the sixth fairway. This made him smile, not only at the thought that he had played Cupid for the romantic twosome, but also at the fact that both were excellent golfers.

Ian MacDonald had practiced bachelorhood for some forty years, and was now for the first time contemplating marriage. Alana Lowery was divorced, and until recently had given up all hope of remarrying. Instead of bonding with a man she had instead chosen to lower her handicap to single digits. Mr Burns’ crinkly face beamed at the sight of the couple, holding hands as they pulled their carts together.

It hadn’t been so long ago that Mr Burns, known to all as The Old Fart (TOF), would not have welcomed women players at the club. He and others like him believed women brought undesirable influences onto a golf course, slowed down play, and altered the masculine flavor of the golfing experience.

A round of golf, they said, used to be a therapeutic affair, providing not only fresh air and exercise but also sorely needed distance from women. Men are strange animals, in that most of their young lives are spent in pursuit of women, while a lion’s share of their later years is occupied by attempts at avoidance. Perhaps anthropologists and psychologists will in some century yet to come provide plausible explanations. But now women are often seen on golf courses, and not only is the civility they bring welcomed, but many of the younger women players can beat the men. Interesting how things change.

Such lofty themes occupied The Old Fart’s mind as he sat in his chair, a sight as predictable and soothing as Abraham Lincoln in his Memorial. But the morning calm was shattered as Bob Stilton, an 18 handicapper with a horrible slice, appeared out of nowhere and shouted at TOF from point blank range.

“Come quick, Mr Burns, hurry! There’s a big fight in the clubhouse!”

“What? A fight? Who’s fighting?”

“Mr Roberts and Miss Jameson! Only you can stop it!”

There was some truth to that, since not only had TOF on occasion changed their diapers, but had also showed them how to hold a cut down five iron. Many of the younger members at Burnt Tree Country Club boasted similar intimacy with TOF, who had been an integral part of the club longer than anyone could remember.

Reluctantly he rose from his beloved Adirondack chair, put his lemonade on the side table, and followed Mr Stilton to the combat zone. As he approached the clubhouse he remembered fondly the way James Roberts, since the age of ten, could hit a niblick bump and run dead to the pin, and Emily Jameson, who by her twelfth birthday could hit a drive as far as most fifteen-year-old boys.

They had become engaged in August, and he looked forward to the happy day when the young golfers would be united in fairway matrimony. Universally liked and respected, their happy marriage and likely domination of future mixed doubles tournaments would have been TOF’s crowning matchmaker achievement. At this point a three-pack of Titleist ProVI’s (90 compression) whizzed by TOF’s crown at high speed and broke a mirror behind him. Emily’s throwing arm was strong rather than accurate, as James Roberts was some twelve feet to the left.

“Now see what you’ve done!” cried Mr Roberts, “I’ve told you a thousand times about controlling your temper!”

“A thousand times!?” Coinciding with the ‘t’ in “times” a lady’s golf shoe ($149 Footjoy, size 6 ½) left her hand at 250 feet per second, this time crashing into the signed photo of Bobby Jones teeing off at Burnt Tree.

“You exaggerated as much when you claimed that four-foot putts were automatic for you! I want to win the mixed doubles!”

Risking great injury – he bruised like a peach – TOF stepped in between the warring parties.

“See here you two! What’s all this then?”

“It’s all his fault!” blurted Miss Jameson. “He keeps telling me how he admires the way Alana Lowery’s derrière sways when she waggles.”

“But she,” indicating Miss Jameson, “can’t stop carrying on about Mr MacDonald’s hands, and the way they hold a club like a Stradivarius.”

Now deep lines showed in TOF’s chin and brow as these words fell upon his very hairy ears. Jealousy had sprouted just before nuptials were to take place. This was inopportune timing indeed.

Moments later peace once again reigned over the clubhouse, since Emily and James had stormed out of opposite exits, leaving an eerie calm.

“That was close,” said Alex, the club manager. “I thought for a moment they’d start heaving fireplace pokers at one another.”

This was little consolation for TOF, since his latest matchmaking triumph was crashing to earth instead of soaring to new heights. Soon things would get worse.

A few weeks later came the annual mixed doubles scramble, and when the teams were announced there was general astonishment. Members could not believe their eyes when they read the schedule and saw that the foursome teeing off at 8:24 am consisted of two teams, Ian MacDonald and Emily Jameson, and James Roberts teamed with Alana Lowery. After the “Explosion”, as the imbroglio in the clubhouse was now called, some amorous reversals had taken place, much like the recoupling machinations from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Emily Jameson, in an attempt to make James Roberts seethe with envy, had applied her considerable flirting and driving skills in winning Ian MacDonald’s attention. (Alana wasn’t nearly as long off the tee.) Likewise James Roberts, who was unequalled with the lob wedge, had stolen the affections of Alana Lowery, whose strength was her deft putting. In anticipation of a close and perhaps emotional round, dozens of members had canceled important business meetings in the city in order to attend. On this day the busy cogs of industry would risk coming to a halt.

At precisely 8:15 am on the day of the tournament, TOF stood erect at the 1st tee, a wizened rulebook in one pocket, and a flask in the other. As was his custom he would officiate, walking the round with the foursome featuring the two teams most likely to win. Several dark clouds in the distance echoed the feeling of dread; this was supposed to be a golf tournament, not World War III.

Another fight had taken place earlier that morning. The Steam Train had wanted to tee off early that morning, but the pro had refused, preferring to allow tournament players an agreeable pace. The constituents of the Train, wealthy retirees all, combined to form a doomsday machine so ponderous, so methodically slow and plodding that most local golfers opted to play chess or several rubbers of bridge while waiting for the group to get far enough ahead. The Steam Train never let anyone play through. The pro, Jimmy Belizzi, proved no match for the pure bullying power wielded by the Steam Train.

There was Wayne the Waggler, who stood over his ball for a full five minutes before actually hitting it, completing a never varying performance that included precisely 75 waggles. Peter the Piston raised his club vertically from the ball, and then brought it straight down in a vain hope that somehow the ball would fly forward. When he actually did hit the ball it only moved ten yards at the most, with the club itself deeply embedded in the ground. The course superintendent was currently resting, enjoying a heavily medicated vacation from repairing Peter’s efforts.

The third member of the Steam Train was Fenton the Firebox, a very short and very thick man with red hair and a volcanic temper. Possessing an extremely fast back swing and even more vicious downswing, he produced such violent force it was a pity he rarely hit the ball out of his own diminutive shadow. On such shots, well, on all shots really, he exploded in anger and showered the environs with expletives. Few knew he had been a Catholic priest in his working days. Bringing up the rear, literally, was Carl the Caboose. Carl carried a set of buttocks so huge his trousers were custom made, and it was said an entire annual crop of Georgia cotton was required for his wardrobe. His butt knocked over small cars. On the rare occasion that his drive exceeded 80 yards his cohorts would applaud and shout, “Way to slap cheeks, Carl!”

You should keep the Steam Train in mind, since I think they are probably going to figure in sometime later in the story.

So where was I? Oh yes, Ian and Emily were conferring animatedly on one side of the tee, and had turned their backs on James and Alana, who were performing various exotic stretching exercises and exuding a calm serenity. TOF stepped forward to make an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the annual Burnt Tree mixed doubles tournament is about to begin. I’d like to remind members that USGA rules are to be strictly observed, and your golf etiquette and silence during players’ shots are much appreciated.“

A coin was tossed and the MacDonald/Jameson team was to tee off first. Emily hit a 230-yard drive down the middle, and flashed a smirk at Alana, who would need a drive and a seven iron (the “spade mashie niblick”) to match it. Ian hit his past Emily’s, but in the rough. No matter, since Ian’s iron play was the envy of every golfer for miles around.

Alana stepped to the tee, and after a few moments pause for restlessness in the gallery, hit a very nice drive about 185 down the left side of the fairway, in perfect position for the approach. She smiled sweetly at James as he stood on the tee. James Roberts could hit booming tee shots, but never knew where they were going. He hit a high shot that went well past Alana but into a deep fairway bunker.

The crowd applauded politely, the tournament was underway, and TOF ducked behind a tree to take a long pull from his flask. The dark clouds took on a more menacing look and seemed to frown directly at Burnt Tree CC.

For those golfing neophytes unfamiliar with the scramble format, I’ll sketch out a few guiding principles. All members of the team – whether two, three or four – tee off. The best drive is selected and then all players of the team hit from that spot. Then the best shot is chosen and all hit from there until the ball is holed. Very simple really, except for the one requirement that each team player must supply a minimum number of drives, usually between three and six, depending on the size of the team.

This means that the golfer who hits it long and straight every time can’t use his (or her) drive on every hole. This places a premium on strategic timing, since the team has to decide when to take whose drive. A great deal of pressure can affect a golfer’s confidence if the team desperately needs a good drive, whether from a great or mediocre player.  The noblest game is humbling.

Ian’s six-iron approach stopped ten feet from the pin, causing a wild eruption of applause from the knowledgeable entourage. James’ five-iron finished on the fringe about forty feet from the flag. Both teams parred, after Ian’s birdie putt lipped out, and James chipped to three feet and Alana sank the par putt. There was electricity in the air. Some of it came from the crowd, while the rest came from those dark clouds I mentioned earlier.

The next few holes were virtual repeats of the first holes, with the longer drivers hitting — what else? — longer drives, the approach specialists hitting crisp, accurate irons, and the short game wizards hitting surgical chips and putts. After nine holes the match was all square.

On number ten Roberts hit his first drive to find the fairway, a mammoth 295-yard tee shot that soared past a pair of eagles engaged in the long distance scrutiny of lunch. The Roberts/Lowery supporters howled with approval, while the MacDonald/Jameson contingent stood in hushed awe.

“I knew I could do it!” crowed James, while Alana beamed her appreciation. There is nothing like the look a woman gives a man when he has done something she admires.

On the other hand, the look that greeted Ian, who had just hit a perfectly respectable 240-yard drive into the fairway, was downright emasculating. It was as if a beach bully had kicked sand in Ian’s face, and he could only whimper. Clearly, Emily had higher hopes.

“You’re not using your legs enough,” she snapped at Ian.

The Old Fart, quietly recording the scores, firmly believed he was watching the dam’s first cracks forming. While all four players were alike in that they were attractive and fit, with TV commercial-grade hair and teeth, in character they were quite different. As stated earlier, TOF had a unique perspective in that he had seen them grow up.

Since their childhood James and Emily had been athletic, big boned and strong. They excelled at all sports, especially the ones where speed and brute force were required. They were also gregarious and jocular. Ian and Alana, on the other hand, were both smaller and fine boned, and more inclined to read than the other couple. These, thought TOF, were the key reasons that the pairs had formed the way they had.

The reversal, as evidenced by the new doubles teams, spelled trouble. Oil and water, Frenchmen and Germans, peanut butter and carp; some combinations do not mix. The dark clouds drew closer.

Over the next few holes Team Roberts/Lowery took a modest lead, but congratulatory tones were replaced by caustic scorn and short tempers. Alana, clearly feeling the tension, missed a short putt, and James barked at her in rebuke. Emily, becoming impatient and frustrated with Ian’s lack of length off the tee, began calling him “Little Man”.

On #17 James’ drive, prodigious once again, flew into the wrong zip code, opening the door. Ian, steady and unfazed, hit a three wood 220 yards to a perfect spot in the fairway, then a gorgeous seven iron to six feet. Emily’s putt went four feet past, and only those on the green, including TOF, heard Ian mutter, “Alana would have sunk it.” His own putt did a classic “toilet bowl”, rolling 360 degrees around the cup before falling. The match was again all even.

As they reached the 18th tee the first flash of lightning and concomitant rumble of thunder was the two-part ka-chunk of a pump action shotgun: it meant trouble.

Trouble also took the form of the Steam Train, who had just left the 18th tee. TOF surveyed the scene with a cool eye but an uneasy stomach. One golfer was some thirty yards from the tee in the deep rough on the left. Another was fishing his ball out of the pond on the right, some forty yards from the tee. A third was in the woods and the fourth had miraculously hit the fairway, a sixty-yard top that he would brag about later in the bar.  (We golfers call the bar the 19th hole.)

The Train never let anyone play through, that much was sure. The tournament players might as well resign themselves to wait. Suddenly Burns envisioned a match lighting a fuse.

“I thought you were supposed to be a great putter…” James nearly shouted at Alana, almost in tears.

“How can I concentrate with you yelling at me?!” she retorted. “Ian never treated me that way!”

“This time,” Emily said, jabbing a finger into Ian’s smallish chest, “I want to see you hit a drive further than my mother!”

Very uncharacteristically, Ian slammed down his driver (a Blammo 5000 with strontium inserts) and drew himself up to his full height, which put him chin-to-chin with the jousting Jameson.

“So you’d rather be in the next county than the fairway?” he sputtered.

“Well, I’d like to be a little closer to the green like I’m used to when James is on my team.”

“If memory serves he is not on your team; I am.”

“And maybe that’s the problem. I like having James as my partner. He’s not afraid to swing hard like a man!”

“And I miss having Ian on my side,” piped up the quiet Alana. “He never criticizes me or makes fun of me.”

“Oh, Alana, darling, I miss you so!” said Ian, who stepped over and folded her in his arms.

Emily looked down at the ground, and then walked over to James. Slowly they placed their hands on each other’s shoulders, their more gladiatorial way of embracing.

At this point rain began to fall, which the Steam Train took no notice of. They continued to hack and plod, hack and plod. Emily and James, sensible types, walked off the course, heading for the bar. Ian and Alana, more attuned to the songs of romance, hugged and kissed, oblivious to the rain. TOF concluded rightly that the tournament ended in a draw, and finished off his flask with one good long drink.

Two weeks later a double wedding was held on the 18th tee, in the closest approximation of a happy ending this story can offer. Mr Burns gave away both the brides, and gave a very moving speech extolling the virtues of couples that play golf. I don’t remember all the details, but it did include some well-chosen words on the importance of the slow, short back swing, the steady head and the full follow through.

 

 

Occupy a Dictionary

October 17, 2011

I love to read. There are few pleasures that can surpass that of sitting quietly in a comfortable chair, and imbibing one good sentence after another from a good book. Or a good magazine like the New Yorker, the Atlantic or the Economist. Reading is one of the purest forms of thinking, and I believe that thinking is fun.

Life is short, and we all deserve more fun.

When one has devoured a fair number of books — there are still so many left! — one starts to read more carefully. The more one reads, the more clearly one sees the differences between good writing and the rest. Something that is well written is a pleasure to be around, like a good conversationalist. Really good writing is so much more than just proper grammar and correct spelling. You know what I’m talking about: someone you enjoy hearing speak probably has a nice voice and a sense of humor, tells compelling stories, and uses interesting and imaginative language; you want them to keep talking. On the other hand, someone who speaks only of himself or herself, has a monotonic voice, and uses bad grammar and dull language will not be able to hold an audience for very long.

So it is with writing: combine the on-paper attributes of a good speaker (has a sense of humor, tells a compelling story, and uses interesting language) with correct spelling and proper grammar and punctuation, and it’s hard to put down. But sprinkle the piece you are reading with poor spelling and wretched grammar — like wrong notes in a symphony or ill-matched parts of a piece of furniture — and the quality and enjoyment plummets. Flaws like bad spelling and grammar can damage the story and break the magic spell. Low quality writing grates on the careful reader, which means that he or she might not wish to claw their way to the end.

One of my teachers used to say that the aim of a writer was to engage the reader so that he or she wants to continue turning the pages.

When confronted with flawed writing, a tiny growling sound begins to form in the base of my throat, and the need to point out the error to the author is nearly overwhelming. Is it out of a need for punishment or vengeance? Is it to feel superior? I don’t think so; I see it as more of a desire to help the author to improve.

Our country is populated by adults who ostensibly went to high school, and maybe even college, yet a quick review of the writing skills of some of them often suggests otherwise. These adults often post things in Facebook, where they find new and inventive ways to mangle the English language. (Here I must remind my readers that my wife is dyslexic, and that I am keenly aware of and sensitive to their impairments; my comments are directed at those who do not suffer from that sort of reading disorder and therefore may not use that excuse when defending their writing.) The profusion of errors seems to prove that either the writer missed quite a lot of English classes, or else their teachers were incompetent or indifferent to their students’ mastery of elementary skills, or some combination of all of those. In addition, I believe that many people do not read much; one who does not read is not likely to become a very good writer.

Do these Facebook perpetrators want their audiences to enjoy what they have written? Or are they narcissistic and clueless like many of the “Occupiers”? Don’t writers want to be liked and respected? Or do they not mind being mistaken for a small child or perhaps a Chinese writer of English-language instruction manuals?

Like many other devoted readers, I have a small handful of pet peeves about spelling. Is it really so hard to tell which version of “your” or “you’re” is correct? What about there/their/they’re? Maddeningly, it seems as if people flip coins when it comes to choosing between enormously complicated words like to/two/too or “its” versus “it’s”. (And by the way, [its’] is not a word.) There is this wonderful invention called the “dictionary” and there might even be one on your shelf. It is a tool that can help you if you are not sure.  I often use it, because nobody can remember how to spell every word, and to me it’s worth the time to look up words and get them right.

Over the course of twenty years I have tried to inculcate in my students a respect for language and for getting things right. Let’s assume for a moment that one of them graduated and got hired. If that student were to write memos filled with errors, with all sorts of sloppy grammar and misspellings, their boss would begin to question their credibility, and to doubt their ability to perform their job properly. Employees are representatives of their companies, and their work, and their writing, reflects upon the company. From a business customer’s point of view, if a contact person at a vendor’s company could not do something as simple as spelling a short word correctly — perhaps the name of a product — could they be counted on to correctly fill a customer’s order? To send the right number of the right items? Little things matter, and as a very wise friend from Texas likes to say, “The devil’s in the details.”

Write poorly, misspell things, and people will think less of you. (Isn’t it similar to not being able to do the simplest math? If someone cannot do a very simple calculation, like make correct change from a cash register, don’t you think somewhat less of them?) If someone points out a mistake you made, like a misspelled word or a grammatical error, don’t assume that the person is trying to punish you or make fun of you; maybe that person is trying to help you out so that you’ll get it right next time, and maybe avoid worse treatment by others.

Next time we will test a new 3-D graphics interface, and evaluate how well you throw virtual tomatoes at me.

Droning On and On

October 15, 2011

Unmanned aerial drones — also called ‘unmanned aerial vehicles‘ or UAV’s — have become the weapon of choice in today’s theatre of modern warfare. Why send soldiers into battle and risk loss of life when a highly-trained technologist can sit safely hundreds or thousands of miles from danger, and demolish a target as easily as zapping aliens in a video game? Furthermore, the precision allowed by a drone attack means that concentrated force can be applied to very small targets with surgical accuracy.

Instead of blowing up an area the size of a city block or small village — approximately the same area taken up by most of today’s SUV’s — a military officer can choose and hit much smaller targets, such as a pool table or Smart car. (Common sense says that we should avoid both; we were all warned about the dangers of playing pool in “The Music Man” and elementary physics tells us that Smart cars will lose in any collision contest with a vehicle bigger than a Volkswagen, and become tiny airborne coffins.) Almost like a sniper, a drone can destroy a selected, small bull’s-eye while leaving surrounding objects unharmed.

Early success has led to rapid growth in the industry, and as history teaches us, superior weaponry leads to big dollar business, which tends to fuel more research and development. While currently the drone business is aimed, so to speak, at nations doing battle with other nations, and the elimination of terrorists, I predict that the personal drone industry will soon eclipse that of the big boys of the multinational scene.

As imagined by the New Yorker cartoonist Mick Stevens in the drawing above, we will soon be able to purchase personal drones to fulfill our needs. Your spouse is cheating? Send in a drone. Your boss is harrassing you? Send in a drone. There’s a bully at your school? Send in two or three drones and kill him slowly. Is the second bassoonist a little flat in the Beethoven concerto? Send in a microdrone.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests have become a more global phenomenon recently, but many participants seem unable to articulate reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Personal drones could circle the area of interest, and listen to conversations on the ground. If, during a televised interview with, say Geraldo Rivera, the protester uttered something like, “Corporations aren’t fair!” or “Capitalism is greedy and the devil’s playground!” a drone could plummet like an angry coconut and take the offender out. Audience participation software could decide if Rivera would also be eliminated.

The Well and the Bucket

October 9, 2011

Here at the Fountain we would like you to know that the well has not gone dry; rather, we have temporarily misplaced our bucket.

More soon.