Sunday, October 28, 2012

Getting ready for the storm

The weather forecasters think three different storms are about to converge on us at once. I guess that means the end of our pretty fall colors. We’ll miss them. Autumn has progressed very slowly due to unusually warm days, and we’ve been spending lots of time outside. It’s been great, and we knew it couldn’t last forever.

This morning, as soon as dawn broke, I looked out to see if the storm had arrived yet. I saw a little wind, but nothing worse. I wanted to get Alla out for a bike ride before I left for church, so I launched a strategic plan. Since she likes to sleep later than I do, I shaved and got myself as organized as possible before waking her up. “Do you want to go for a ride?” I finally asked.

Alla answered something sleepy and barely intelligible. I showed her the sky, suggesting that I could still see a little blueness. She saw only gray, but consented that the wind didn’t look too bad. She thought about it. I reminded her how much we’d enjoyed the afternoon walk she dragged me out for yesterday and she decided to be a good sport. Off we went.

While well over half the city’s leaves had already fallen from their trees, the remaining ones seemed even brighter. No doubt our orange bike glasses had something to do with it, as did the gentle morning light and the lateness of the season. We gasped and exclaimed as we rolled down the Emerald Necklace. The city seemed almost abandoned and we decided to take a bigger avenue we’d normally avoid. Historic buildings peeked out at us from behind the less-leafy trees until we made our way to the Arnold Arboretum.
I finally got out my phone at the Arboretum and took a few photos. We understood once we stood still that we were watching the end unroll. Leaves cascaded down on us and the wind speed increased. We rode home in a headwind, and from time to time we couldn’t see pavement at all under the accumulating leaves. By noon, a light rain had started, and I’m pretty confident that the fall-color season has effectively ended.

Monday, October 22, 2012

I am hoarse

Johnny's Freshman boat. He's the one on the right.
Every year I go to watch crew races at the Head of the Charles Regatta. I don’t really care who wins, but I bring a megaphone and yell at lots of boats just because I enjoy it. I generally cheer for the local teams, and for whatever team seems to be doing better than expected. And I always cheer for Princeton. Long ago, my cousin’s son rowed for Princeton and his boats tended to win lots of races. He even got invited to join the U.S. National Team, but he moved on to “real life” after he wasn’t selected for the Olympic team. I still watch rowing, as I have since long before Johnny rowed his first Head of the Charles.

Yesterday Alla and I focused on the social aspects of the regatta. We watched a few races, but spent considerable amounts of time testing free food samples and hob-nobbing with some of the many visitors this event brings to the Boston area every year. Alla was excited to pose with a model Lufthansa plane in her hands, and the stewardess sent her home with a rubber ducky dressed in a Lufthansa uniform. I was excited to dig through the bargain bins at JL Racing, a manufacturer of sport clothing. Rowers tend to be tall and lanky, and this is a pretty good way for me to find athletic clothes that fit (or almost fit.)

Today I came back to the river straightaway after church. I stopped at the Radcliffe boat house and bought a bagel for a dollar, and received a big dollop of cream cheese for free. Then I looked for a free salad from Olivia’s, but they’d already run out so I finished my lunch with some new sports recovery drink and a couple of sample Lara Bars. Fortified, I sat down on the bank of the river and got out my megaphone, binoculars and program. I yelled at lots of boats and made friends with a couple of grandparents waiting for their granddaughter. The grandparents didn’t know anything about crew races, so suddenly I was an “expert.”

I’m not an expert, however, and this year I had been puzzling over why it appeared to be so hard for the coxswains in the long boats (8’s) to steer. Nobody near me knew much more about the sport than I do, so I felt free to leave when I finally got tired of sitting in one spot on the ground. I walked back to my favorite viewing spot, on the Anderson Bridge near Harvard’s Weld Boathouse. Soon I discovered that the tiny woman beside me has had considerable experience as a coxswain, including on the Charles River. She explained to me the ideal route from the Weeks Footbridge to our bridge, optimizing a short course and the fact that you really-really want to be pointed in the right direction when you get between the bridge piers. When some boats got congested between the piers I asked her if she’d slow a boat down in order to avoid contention in a tight spot like that. “Oh yeah,” she replied. “In a race, the rowers are a lot like animals. If you get them spooked it can throw off the rest of the race.” Needless to say, she was a wonderful conversationalist.

Crew people tend to make great company anyway. There’s something about getting up super-early in the morning to sit in a boat with the same people day after day that sorts out folks who can’t get along with others. It makes for a very pleasant spectator environment too. You end up with a lot of gregarious people egging each other on. In the end we scream and yell a lot and we tend to come home hoarse. It’s lots of fun.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Weekend in Maine

Last week Alla noticed an ad for a lecture in Camden, Maine. We’ve never been in Camden and the lecture sounded good, so off we went. According to Google Maps, it’s a 3½-hour drive to get there, but somehow we managed to spend all day at it. The problem involved shopping. Alla and I both hate to shop, so we don’t do it very often. We had a little list of things we’d been meaning to buy, so we stopped at some of the factory outlet stores along the way. One stop proved especially successful: Alla really needed a new pair of casual pants, and she found an excellent pair at Lucky Jeans. She liked them a whole lot more than the pants she had on, so she left the dressing room in her new jeans and told the clerk she wanted to wear them out of the store.

As she rang up the sale, the clerk realized that we had a little problem. Lucky sews anti-theft tags into their clothing and the clerk normally de-activates them at the counter. Alla might have to take off her pants for this. Fortunately, the store manager knew that they could de-activate the tag simply by folding it in half, which the clerk accomplished while Alla sat on the counter. Seeing me staring at my phone, Alla warned the clerk that she was about to become a public figure as I took this photograph for my blog.

After all stops for shopping, lobster sandwiches, walking around and rubbernecking, we got to Camden as the sun began to set. Had I known how much I’d like Camden and the view from our balcony, I would have shopped less and driven more directly. It’s a harbor town on a rocky bay, set at the bottom of colorful hills. The oldest buildings date from the early 1800’s, and the downtown architecture still looks quite historic.

After Saturday’s lecture, which we both enjoyed, we climbed Mount Battie. Alla complained a lot during the climb because we expected open vistas all the way up, but the trail took us through woods until the very top. We could have driven up, and I had to entice her to complete the hike by promising that we could beg a ride down if she didn’t want to walk back. She took me up on my offer, and we ended up riding with a really interesting couple. They had overheard us speaking Russian and the guy told us that he’d not long ago spent two years in Kazakhstan. He was a Peace Corps volunteer, and he spoke pretty good Russian. His poor girlfriend suffered in smiling silence as the conversation suddenly veered clear of her language. I think at least the rest of us felt like we got back to our car too quickly, and would have enjoyed talking more.

We got some rain on Sunday, but mostly while we were at church. We made good use of the rest of the day and didn’t leave the area until nearly sunset. This time we very nearly drove directly home and confirmed that Google Maps hadn’t lied: it really was only 3½ hours of driving. We want to come back, and the Town of Camden hopes we will. They sent us home with a colorful free magazine describing what a wonderful place it can be even during late autumn and winter. Alla is studying said magazine even as I write this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Russian choir

A Russian monastery choir came to town tonight, so of course we went. And not surprisingly, the show was superb. I believe Russians have the best church music in the world, though I may be prejudiced and I certainly don’t know all about everybody else’s church music. Anyway, I knew we’d like it.

Just before the show began, the theater people made an announcement that the choir would omit one song from the first half of the show and another song after the intermission. People hadn’t settled into silence when the announcer started, and I only managed to remember what the choir would omit during the first half. So, at intermission I asked the people around me if they’d caught the rest of the announcement. I addressed everybody in Russian, and soon learned that I was the only person in the entire mezzanine who had understood the announcement, which was given in English.

Frustrated, I went down to the lobby and found a young woman. Surely a well-dressed woman under 30 in America would speak English. I asked her, then, if she spoke it. “A little bit,” she replied. So I asked her in Russian if she’d caught the announcement. She had not. I looked around the crowd to find somebody else who seemed likely to know English. I listened for a conversation in English. No luck. I tried the lounge area in the basement, and finally gave up. I’d just have to figure out on my own whether they were singing the songs in order. Well, actually, Alla helped me.

At one point in the second half they sang a song which the program called “Evening on the Roadstead.” (Вечер на рейде) The choir director turned to the audience and motioned for us to sing. Everybody but I seemed to know the words, and they sang very enthusiastically. The choir applauded the audience and the audience applauded the choir. Following up on this success, the soloist announced in English that their encore would be a song everybody knew and we were all invited to sing along. He sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” while the choir sang “Ba-da-doo-wah” and other sounds not requiring linguistic expertise. Amusingly, nobody in the audience seemed to know this number. The choir and soloist did a great job with it by themselves, presenting Russian style and perfectly-accented English.

The Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir will perform in several other American cities in the next couple of weeks, and I’d encourage my readers to give it a shot if they come near you. You can see the whole schedule and listen to music samples here.
Our view from the mezzanine of the Majestic Theater

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life in Boston

We’ve been back in Boston for a month now, and we’ve been really busy. A lot of our business has related to home maintenance, including one project I really enjoyed. A couple of years ago I built a new door to our roof deck, topping an aluminum frame with an insulated two-layer Plexiglas window. I was rather pleased with the result, and expected it to last a long time. Unfortunately, however, I made a summertime mistake. To keep the bedroom cool during hot weather, I taped down a sheet of opaque vinyl. Imagine my surprise when I removed the vinyl in the fall and discovered that the Plexiglas had developed a spiderweb of cracks. It turns out that I’m not the first person to make this mistake, and the two materials don’t get along well.

This year I cut up a big Mylar bag to tape over the roof door. It kept the bedroom cooler without worsening the Plexiglas problem, but I really had to replace the crackled window.

I went back to the plastics place and told them I’d messed up by telling them what material I wanted to buy, and this time I asked their advice about what I should get. They told me about polycarbonate, a strong, light and clear material used for fighter-jet canopies among other things. They recommended a heavy-duty sheet capable of supporting a huge snow load, and I ordered it. This stuff is great! I got really worried when I picked it up because it’s so light, but it’s plenty hard enough to cut through. Alla’s all excited because she can finally open the door effortlessly. I’m all excited because it’s got a ten-year guarantee.
Last view of old roof hatch
New hatch in place

On Sunday we headed out for pure entertainment. My college alumni association invited us to take an architectural tour by boat, and we had a great time. The guide worked for the Boston Architectural Center, and she had lots of interesting info to share. I hit it off with the boat captain too. He and I have both lived in Boston for a long time, and we had enough fun sharing stories that he invited me to stay on the boat as his guest for the sightseeing tour he would run next. I took lots of pictures, and put my favorite ones here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


A couple of days ago I wrote a blog post about a fellow I worked with long ago. Today I’d like to continue the theme and tell a story about a different co-worker at my next job. I was very happy to escape my job at the department store chain and go to work at a bank holding company with a bunch of people who tended to respect marriages and families. I had a brilliant and slightly eccentric co-worker named Rob Arnott. Rob went on to become a well-known player in the world of investments and investment theory, but for the moment he and I pretended to be peers. I think he and I even had the same titles when I started, but management soon recognized his extraordinary talent and made him a vice president. Rob got all excited about this and went out and bought a lovely house in the suburbs.

One day Rob came to work late, wearing new glasses. I commented on them, and he told me how he came to buy them. The day before, he’d left the office a little late. He went home by train, and his wife would be waiting for him at the station so he ran all the way from our office to the train station on a hot summer evening. Rob always seemed a little soft to me, and I had a hard time imagining him running so far at all, let alone in a business suit and leather shoes, probably even carrying a briefcase. Miraculously, he got to the station on time as the train waited beside the platform.

Well, he wasn’t exactly on time. As he ran up to the train, it began to move. Rob sprinted toward the still-open door in the last car. The train slowly accelerated, and as Rob neared the door the train began going fast enough that my unfortunate friend realized he could not board. Exhausted and in despair, he fell to his knees, ripping the knees out of both legs of his suit pants and scraping up the palms of his hands. The conductor standing by the door took pity and signaled the engineer to stop the train. Grateful, Rob got on and sat down by a window to rest and cool off.

Sweaty and gasping for breath, he stuck his head outside the window. The train gathered speed and started around a curve. Rob took a deep breath, relaxed and WHOOSH! the wind blew the glasses right off of his face. Glasses were practically a part of Rob’s identity at the time, and I can imagine the horror on his wife’s face as Rob stepped off of the train with empty face, his knees bleeding through the holes in his pant legs, and his hands all skinned up.

This little setback didn’t interfere with Rob’s ultimate success. You can read a recent article about him here.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I haven’t written anything in my blog for the past few days because I’ve been busy doing ordinary chores and don’t have much new to write about. Hoping to entertain my readers at least a little bit, I’ll tell an old story.

When I first finished business school, I went to work as a financial planner for a company that owned a few department stores. Every Thursday I had to interview the vice president of marketing to get his opinion about the potential impact of that week’s advertising. Then I would develop a comprehensive forecast to put onto the president’s desk by the end of the day. I’m not sure what he did with it, and doubt that it made any real difference, but I certainly had no choice but to get the report to the head guy on time every week.

Walter, the vice president of marketing, didn’t always want to give me his numbers. He occasionally tried to talk me into making up my own numbers, but my boss taught me the benefits of CYA and I never failed to get Walter’s official estimates. One Thursday, however, Walter kept putting me off and finally just wouldn’t answer his phone. He had told me that he’d be ready for me by five o’clock, however, so I put on my suit coat at 4:55 and went over to the other building, where he had furnished a large office with inventory from the store. He had a little refrigerator, a big sofa, a little conference table and a big desk. The sofa sat in the center of the room, facing away from the door.

I knocked on the door, certain that Walter was hiding in his office. Receiving no answer I knocked again, more loudly, and this time Walter tried to send me away. I tried the knob, which he had locked, and demanded through the door that he fulfill his promise. Finally, Walter relented. He opened the door and scuttled over to the back of his couch, where he sat casually drinking a soft drink. When I say that he scuttled, I mean that he walked crabbed over so the bulge in his pants might be less noticeable. His efforts gained no effect, and the bulge decreased only slowly as he sat there staring at me, sipping his Seven-Up. On the other side of the couch sat the lovely assistant buyer for small appliances, who looked at me with pink cheeks and magnified innocence as she sipped a Coca Cola.

Walter made up some numbers in a big hurry and threw me out. I went back and wrote up my forecast while he considered the subtleties of blenders and ice breakers. I don’t think that week’s forecast proved to be highly accurate, but for a moment anyway I’d made Walter do his job.