If you’re traveling in the north country fair
where the winds hit heavy on the borderline…
–Bob Dylan “Girl From The North Country”
We who chose to live here in the North Country are a hardy breed. You can see signs of this all around you. The cows have thicker hides, the trees have thicker bark and the lakes sometimes gets real hard…hard enough to walk on. Some extra hardy types actually put little wooden huts or tents on the lakes and fish through the two-foot layer of ice. And, they do this starting in late September. I have seen, with my own eyes, odd vehicles that don’t have wheels to move through the snow. They have treads of some kind and the engines make a whistling noise and the air turns blue. The people who ride around in them wear lots of clothes and all those layers are covered with a heavy one-piece suit. They even have helmets. It looks like a sub-Arctic Area 51.
They claim its fun.
Sometimes it’s so cold that if a guy were to go tee-tee in the woods, the tee-tee will freeze before it hits the ground. Actually, that’s not true. There is no ground…there is about three feet of snow and ice beneath your frozen feet. And this happens no matter much you paid L.L. Bean for those fleece-lined, thinsulated, wool and felt-lined boots.
So, if you’re thinking of moving to the North Country, be advised that no matter what size home you buy, you will need to pay a guy named Bear to build an extra room just to hold your winter clothing, skis, snowshoes, mucklucks, and fleece gloves. Don’t worry about the extra room in the summer…there really isn’t one. There is a window of about 16 days where it’s not snowing or raining…and that is sometime in August (that would be the 14th to the 29th, to be exact).
You’re asking yourself as you read this: “Hey, just how hardy is this guy who is pushing 70 years of age?”
Two mornings ago, I woke up and it was 41 F in the bedroom. Ok, it’s December, that sounds about right, right? But this is my bedroom! Even with the fleece blankets on me, I was chilled. (I don’t own an electric blanket because I may want to have another child someday.)
We discover that something is wrong with the oil burner. Not only am I hardy, but I’m smart. It only took me about an hour to realize that the lack of heat was due to something being wrong with our oil burner.
Being hardy means being far-sighted. Several years ago we had a wood-burner stove installed in our family room downstairs. So, I lit a fire. Isn’t it good? As sure as flapjacks are good…the room downstairs got warm. And it got even warmer until the little thermometer (digital/Radio Shack) said 88 F. Now, I tend to be chilly a lot in these later years of my life, but 88 was a bit much. Especially when I had no idea where any clothing not made of fleece or wool happened to be stored.
So, I watched the fire from the other side of the room. I used my birding spotter scope to check on when a new log needed to be added.
By now it was near the dinner hour. For some reason I didn’t feel like my pre-dinner dish of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. But it was my turn to cook.
So, I went up stairs to the kitchen and planned dinner. Something quick and easy. I decided on a stir-fry. I like to have a nice glass of Chardonnay while I cook, so I took the bottle out of the fridge and put it on the counter so it would cool down a little. I prepared the carrots, mushrooms, peppers and rice. I mixed the soy sauce and put aside 1/4 cup of peanuts and scallions for the garnish.
I knew that stir-frying can sometimes be splattery, I put on my special North Country L.L. Bean endorsed red apron from Macy’s. It was lined with fleece.
I then put the silverware and plates in the microwave to add a touch of warmth, and cooked.
It turned out to be a great meal.
But, we only have TV upstairs so we bundled up in fleece and wool while we ate and watched Episode 6 of Season 3 of Game of Thrones.
I felt a chill watching all the violence and sex. They kept saying that “winter is coming…the white walkers are coming…it’ll be a long winter.”
I can relate.
[I’m really not that overweight, it’s the blanket I was wearing under the apron.]
[The meal just before it frosted over.]
My father grew up poor. Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread. Just the kind of poor that would keep his father one step ahead of the rent collector. His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s. My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story. Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.
It was Northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish. Two generations went down into the mines. Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set. Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit. Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm. It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation. After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover. My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet. He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at the walls.
But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.
It was in the early 1920’s. The four children were asleep in the remote farmhouse my grandparents rented. Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome. It was too quiet. There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night–the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.
He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into oversized cold shoes and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove. But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low. The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling, was on. My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale. He called out. He heard nothing. Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air. In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house. He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints. They led across a small pasture and through a gate. From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight. He followed the trail. Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions. A child’s fear swept over him. Were the young kids being abandoned? It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.
In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. He knew their parental concerns and he knew he and his brother and sisters were loved.
He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.
At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope. He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see. He looked down.
He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.
He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.
At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside. They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock. They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them. They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking. They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve. They stared at each other and then up at my dad.
“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty. Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”
My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal. The bucket was filled. They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the bucket between them.
In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again. My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees. Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.
Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.
. . .
When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve. I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid. Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned “The Threat” that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.
My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.
“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them, ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a Merry Christmas.”
If a sweater was hanging in an empty forest, would it still be Cobalt Blue?
I ponder these kinds of questions…maybe a little too much.
Every time my wife suggests a hike, I can find some kind of excuse. And most of them are real concerns of mine. It’s not that I don’t like to hike in the glorious woods of the Adirondacks, but there’s often an honest reason to stay at home. I don’t “do” bugs. Black flies are a nightmare to be avoided. So, there goes May, June and most of July. The mosquitoes, of course, are around most of the time, except when it’s -36 F. (and even then they can find a way to my skin).
The mud of spring is a no-go in most people’s book.
“I have new hiking boots, Mariam, I can’t get them dirty!”
That pretty much leaves some of September and early October. The leaves are in full color and the weather is cool and crisp, like a maple syrup crepe.
But, a new challenge has come up. I was browsing through a few holiday catalogs and I found a reasonably priced ($39.99 + tax) pair of hiking pants from Cabelas. These Trailhiker II Pants had it all. I especially like the 9-oz 100% cotton-canvas basketweave fabric.
Basketweave pants? Wait a minute. I’ve caned canoe seats before and that’s where I hear the term basketweave…but pants? I began to sense trouble in the road ahead.
I looked over the rest of the description. The knee patches were double-layered. There were 7 pockets! Seven! (with a reinforced knife-clip patch and a hidden cell-phone/media player pocket.)
What happened to the old pair of jeans that had 4 pockets?
As I was narrowing my search down, I was confronted with one last, but insurmountable problem.
I remember when Lands End began to bring in strange color names. They were glorious names that evoked the seashore or the mountains of Maine. But they were still a bit strange. Then L.L. Bean jumped on the wagon and a whole new lexicon of hues and tints, dyes and washes made my pants search more and more difficult.
Now I had to think about not what felt comfortable…but what was going to look good (color-wise) in the place where I was going to wear the new pants.
I looked over the choices for the Trailhiker II pants. I could get them in British Tan, Otter, Gunmetal and Foliage. On the same page a Henley sweater was listed. The colors available: Nutmeg, Evergreen, Dark Midnight and Sandy River. I flipped the page. Another Henley sweater. Colors? Cobalt Blue, Sage, Cayenne, Antique Brass, Black and Brown. Brown? I was forgetting about Brown.
I picked up a copy of the L.L. Bean holiday catalogue. I flipped through the pages checking out the colors from Freeport, Maine. A sampling: Weathered Leather, Saddle, Plum Wine, Heather, Dark Indigo, Charcoal Heather (maybe that was two colors), Collegiate Blue Camo, Mountain Red Buffalo, Deep Garnet, Glacier Blue (I’ve been on a glacier…it wasn’t this color), Cabernet, Dark Terracotta, Bright Mariner, French Blue (now we’re talkin’), Pink Lilac, Deep Mint, Crisp Lapis, Molten Red, Treeline, Warden’s Green, Moss Khaki, Alpine Gold and Dusty Olive.
I was exhausted. Colors swam before my eyes like an Esther Williams water-color palette.
I turned back to Cabelas for relief. After a few pages I found a pull-over in Medium Brown. Whew! Then I realized that Cabelas was mostly a hunter’s catalogue. You were not likely to find a Medium Brown pull-over in Miami.
Thank God I couldn’t find my Lands End catalog. I might be in the early stages of sensory overload right now.
I woke up screaming the next morning. I was soaked in sweat. The room was spinning like Linda Blair’s head. I had this unspeakably horrific nightmare last night. I dreamed that when I went for the mail, Mike, our local postmaster, told me that several dozen back issues of the J. Crew catalog were found in the back room of the post office.
They all had my name on them!
It was December 1, 2014. The mild afternoon had turned into a chilly evening. A light rain was falling on the gritty sidewalks of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The marquee of the Beacon Theater on 75th Street told the story of the next few hours in my life:
TONIGHT-AN EVENING WITH BOB DYLAN AND HIS BAND-SOLD OUT
PERFORMANCE BEGINS PROMPTLY AT 8:00 P.M.
The tickets hawkers were wandering amid the crowds who were amassing at the front door;
“Tickets? Need Tickets?”
I took my seat on the aisle in the first row of the balcony. Next to me was my son, Brian. My wife, Mariam sat in the third seat.
Great view of the stage, I thought.
I posted a picture on Facebook of the unattended instruments on the stage. “8 minutes to go,” I wrote. At 8:10 the house lights went down and a gong-like tone rang from the large speakers. A guitarist stepped into the dark from stage right. A dark curtain behind the drums and pedal guitar parted. Four or five men walked out. One man wore a cream-colored suit and a planters hat with a black band. It was Dylan. The lights came up slightly and the crowd cheered with intensity.
There is no need for a total recap of the songs. I knew that when the show ended, Bob himself wouldn’t make it out of the stage door before the set list for the evening was posted for the world to see on bobdylan.com.
I’m not a music critic. I have nothing to offer in the way of commentary on chord changes, lyric alterations or technicalities.
This was probably my 16th or 17th time I’ve seen Dylan in concert. The first: the early ’70’s when, backed by The Band, he filled Nassau Coliseum. I’ve seen him at Jones Beach in the heat of a summer’s night. I sat in Madison Square Garden at least twice and saw him once with Tom Petty and later with Paul Simon.
I saw him at Roseland Ballroom when the audience stood for three hours. I was so close to the stage that I could see drops of sweat collect at the end of his reddish-blonde curls. It was at Roseland that I bent over to scratch my shin. I stood up and Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen were on stage with him.
I last saw him in the summer of ’13 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. He seemed tired. The sound was poor and the stage was quite dark.
I was disappointed.
But this night, this rainy night of December 1st, he was solid, strong, not too raspy-voiced and in control of every step and every note. His band was “infinitely listenable.”
Here was a hero of mine who, at the age of 73 was singing songs that helped define my own view of the world, relationships, life and death. There were three sublime moments that night. Three moments that rose up and flew to that place in my heart that taps a reservoir of memories and emotions.
The First Moment came quickly and simply. Therein lies the power of that Moment. Early in the show Bob walks from the center stage microphones and sits at a baby grand piano. If you turned your head to say something you would have missed it. If your attention had wandered…you would have missed it. The audience had stopped cheering, the lights were down. Bob sat in a shadow at the key board. Then it happened.
A woman, below me in the orchestra section and to my left yelled, plaintively two words:
Her voice was not a GO BOB voice. It was quiet, almost pained…lonely and singular. It could have been the parting words of a heart-broken woman to her lover who has just walked out the door after gathering his blankets from the floor.
The people near her heard her. I heard her. I wondered if Bob heard her. The moment was over in about six seconds and then the lights went up and he started a song.
I felt overwhelmed by how she, speaking on an impulse, spoke for a billion people who listened to Bob for over 50 years.
She spoke for me.
The Second Moment was during the first song of the encore.
Signature riffs and chords did not announce the song. You listened to hear a recognizable phrase amid an altered version of the original piece.
Then there it was:
“How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?”
“How many deaths does it take till we find that too many people have died?”
Written a thousand years ago but all about what happened in the last few minutes…somewhere.
And, the Third Moment…it was NOT a Dylan song. But it worked and it was a perfect end to an emotional night.
The words were written by Jerome Moross and Carolyn Leigh.
“Like the lamb that in the springtime wanders far from the fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold…
All I can do is pray, stay with me,
Stay with me.”
I said good-bye to my son at the subway stop. Mariam and I walked back to where we were staying. We walked back in the drizzle. Christmas trees lined the sidewalks…over priced but smelling like our own backyard. That balsam scent stays with you.
I miss my son already. I wanted his company. I wanted him to stay with me.
My wife held my arm…my back was sore…she’ll stay with me.
In a lifetime of good-byes and loss, death and divorce, aging and illness, graying hair and arthritis…it’s heartbreakingly comforting to know something and someone will stay with me.
Thank you, Bob.
On a day last week when the sky took on a strange hue of Cerulean Frost mixed with patches of Brandeis Blue that hung, ever so delicately, over hills of Bulgarian Rose and Caput Mortuum, I happened to be having a chat with my octogenarian friend…a retired oceanographer.
“I am full of vicissitudes today,” she said, as she slipped her walker to the side of the park bench. “My tintinnabulation has increased a thousandfold.”
“Well, I guess it’s all hands on the deck for you, my friend,” I said. “Just don’t tip the bucket.”
“Not only that,” she said with trepidation, “I am suffering once more with a bad case of Helminthophobia.”
“Now, that’s one for the books,” I replied. “Have you seen a specialist?”
“Oh, heavens, no,” she said stifling a sneeze with her forefinger beneath her proboscis. “He would have to examine me and I have had Gymnophobia for years.”
[I thought to myself that after my recent bout with Eurotophobia and the resulting Defecaloesiophobia, I totally understood.]
“Nothing like airing your dirty laundry,” I said. “I guess all bets are off.”
“If it wasn’t for my awful Eremophobia, I’d dump my old man,” she said with alacrity.
“Even though he’s as horny as a three-balled tomcat?” I said.
“Hey, if you ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies,” she said with a sniffle.
“Now that you mention it,” I said as I shifted on the bench, “last month I suffered greatly with a case of Pteronophobia and along with that came a flare-up of my Proctophobia.”
“Psaw,” she replied, “at the end of the day that was as plain as the nose on your face.”
I looked at the sun dipping below the roiling hilltops.
“It’s getting late,” I said, thinking of my constant Myctophobia. “Let me walk you home.”
“I’m all ears,” she said, “and I’m thirsty.”
“Good. Let’s go get a garlic milkshake,” I said.
“Oh, you youngsters are all talk and no action,” she said with a wink.
As we stood up (it took me 14 minutes to straighten my knees), a young couple took our places. They immediately began kissing like there was no tomorrow.
“Get a room,” I said, over my shoulder, as we walked away.
Andy Warhol once made a famous statement about the fact that everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame…sooner or later. But will we really? You may think that every time I post a successful blog, I get my 15 minutes. Well, partly true and partly not. I’ve always thought it would be cool to be famous. To have people point to you as you’re enjoying a private dinner in a restaurant and you hear them say: “I think that’s him” would be kind of nice. It’s happened to me several times, but the other person will usually correct the pointer and say: “No, that’s not him…George Clooney is in Tunisia making a movie.”
So, I began to think about what one needs to have a bit of time…center stage…in the spotlight so clear. It didn’t take me long to realize that all I really needed was a spotlight. Then I could attach it to something, clear some chairs away, and have all the time I wanted in my own personal “limelight.”
I went to B & H Electronics store in Manhattan one day this past week. I wanted to get a very important VHS converted to a quality DVD. On my way out of the store, which is located only a block or two from Madison Square Garden, I spotted the spotlights. I walked around and stared in amazement. If I wanted to light an entire soundstage on a New York City set, this would be the place to go shopping. I looked at all the tubing, stands, racks, lenses and filters…then I saw it! Here, in front of me, was the spotlight of my dreams. The only thing that stood between me and having that light in my home, was my credit card. I looked at the price tag: $875.50 + tax.
I walked out of the store empty-handed. Not because I didn’t think my time in the bright light was worth that price…I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to get it on the train back to Albany where we had parked the car.
And then I looked closer into my psyche. Did I really want to be the center of attention? You need to understand that I am a very shy and insecure person. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “He’s so clever and open about everything…he’s a real “front-man.” Well, that just isn’t the case.
I’m a shy kind of guy.
This evening (it’s November 22), I was attending a benefit dinner at the China House at Hanover Square in lower Manhattan. I happened to be seated next to a lovely young woman, named Melissa. I actually met her a number of times in the past years. She works in the same office at Mt. Sinai Hospital where my wife was an administrator. The first time I met Melissa, I thought the hospital had violated the child-labor laws…she looked about 16 years old. I would joke with her about whether her teacher knew she was missing classes. That was a few years ago. Now, she looks about 17. In face, she’s a woman in her twenties with two children.
But she always makes it known that she reads and likes my posts.
Now, here, I thought, is someone who deserves her 15 minutes of fame. Yes, I would present her with an award. A small medal or statue for being my most ardent fan in New York City.
[I ask you, do you ever seek out your favorite blogger and take the time to thank him or her for how important they are to you? I mean, every few days, I bare my very soul to you all…I open my heart and share my thoughts and obsessions, ideas and stories. It takes me days to recover from the mental exhaustion of giving you my ALL.]
But, alas, I leaving NYC to return home in the morning. I will not get the chance to go back to B & H to buy the spotlight. I won’t have the opportunity to present Melissa with her award. Everything will go on as usual.
I guess the real issue is what did Andy Warhol mean by fame? How many people have to like you to make you famous? (I’ve thought about this for many years and I came up with the number of 7,686 people.)
In the end, someone pays attention to another person and makes them feel loved and appreciated…then fame really isn’t an issue.
Make someone happy and tell them that they are a superstar to you. Tell them that they are more important than Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift to you.
The Empire State Building has been linked to me, in one way or another, since before I was born. That may sound a bit confusing…but stay with me.
I am an American male, raised to hide emotional reactions. But, I can say that the building has made me cry on more than one occasion. When I was young, one of my favorite movies was King Kong. I could quote lines…once upon a time…yes, I could. Now I can merely paraphrase. But as a boy, somehow I “got” the idea of why Kong did what he did to the people of this wonderful town. He was frightened and he was in love with Faye Wray so he took her to the only place where he could save himself and, he thought, her.
It didn’t work. He died. She lived. And the hero at the end said something like: “It was beauty that killed the beast.”
So, I cried.
I cried again when Deborah Kerr was hit by a taxi on her way to meet Cary Grant in An Affair To Remember. When he finally found out that she was paralyzed because of him, he cried. “I didn’t see the taxi,” she said. “I was looking up at you.”
And, yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan finally met (thanks to his little boy) on the observation deck in Sleepless in Seattle. It didn’t help me when Jimmy Durante sang “As Time Goes By” at the end. And, the lights of the building became a giant red heart.
[Tonight, the building is bathed in blue in honor of the Alzheimer’s Foundation.]
I kissed more than one girl on the observation deck. I got a parking ticket once when I left my MG on 34th Street…beneath a NO PARKING sign. I once had to pick something up for my wife in an office of the building, so I wandered the hallways, not as a tourist!
The legends and lore of the Empire State Building are many. Amazingly, it was built in only 10 months! It was opened to the public on May 1, 1931. (May 1 is my wedding anniversary.)
Sixteen years and one month later, I was born.
According to Wikipedia, there were 30 attempted suicides by jumping. It seems only four were successful. The first occurred before it was even opened. A worker was laid off. He jumped to his death. One jumper clearly was not on the “List.” She jumped off the 86th floor deck but the wind blew her back to a ledge on the 85th floor where police brought her inside.
A slightly gentler breeze could have ruined her whole day.
On a foggy day, July 28, 1945, a B-25, flying in zero visibility flew into the side of the building between the 79th and 80th floor. Fourteen deaths resulted. Parts of the plane severed the elevator cable and the operator survived a 75 floor free-fall. Look it up. She’s in the Guinness Book of World Records.
On a clear day, in late 1930 or early 1931, a young man was walking along the streets of the west Village. The man worked for Bell Labs on Bethune Street. He looked up and saw the workers putting the finishing touches on the Empire State Building.
The man had come from a rather poor family who lived in northeastern Pennsylvania. He had dropped out of school and left home to find work in the Big City. The man lived in Bergen, NJ with a relative. His wages were low but he sent what he could back home to help out. After a year or two, the man returned to complete high school, court a young woman named Mary…and eventually married her in 1936.
I know this story pretty well. The man was my father, Paul.
He told me all this when I was a little boy watching King Kong.
“No,” he told me more than once. “I never saw a large ape climbing the building.”
As a little boy, I never could quite believe him about this. How could he not have seen the ape falling? How could he have missed it when beauty killed the beast?
The beast? Well, I guess that’s where I played out my small role in my father’s contact with this great building. Sixteen years and one month after he walked down Bethune Street, I was born.
Add two years to that…I would be entering the “Terrible Twos.” So, my father gets the beast after all.
And, about 70 years later, I’m standing on 7th Avenue looking up at a very special building…washed in blue light…honoring those who have lost their memories.
That’s something I’ve haven’t done…lose memories.