RICKSTER IS THE COLUMNIST FOR THE WEEKLY PUBLICATION, "THE SOMERS RECORD"

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Friday, November 17, 2017

SEEING THE SEAPORT

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (08-03-17)

     We spent a couple days at Mystic Seaport last week, had a great time and learned a lot about the shipbuilding, fishing and whaling industries that kept New England afloat for a few  centuries or so. The little village is a working museum consisting of many period buildings from the heyday of maritime dominance, some in their original locations, many moved from other towns.

     The whaling industry is on full display here, especially with the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the second oldest commercial ship still in the water. I was able to break a long-standing record by hitting my head on every single surface of the vessel. Tall ships aren't necessarily for tall people. On board the ship was evidence of all the other industry that went on in the town.

     You don't hear much about wooden barrels anymore, at least since the invention of Tupperware, but back in the 1800s the cooper who made the barrels was one of the most important people in the village. If you were going on a sea voyage you needed enough provisions to last the trip. It's not like you could pull into a rest stop, gas up,

     hit the loo and get a cup of coffee. Everything had to be taken on board. When it came to making these vessels to take on your vessel, the cooper really had you over a barrel. The one at Mystic was working on so many projects, he should have a plaque at Cooperstown. He cooped 'til he was pooped. He told us how the staves of the barrel were fitted together using whale oil, which made the seal tight. I didn't even know seals drank.

     The whaling industry was dangerous, hard work and not for the squeamish. That's why so few whales wanted to get into it. We learned about the small whaleboats the crew used to harpoon the giant mammal and deliver it back to the ship. Until now most of my contact with whales was centered around the "Fudgy the Whale" cake from Carvel.

     Whale oil itself was like a miracle product back then. I assumed they used whale oil to keep the whales from making those screechy sounds that they make underwater, like the saying, "the squeaky whale gets the grease." But in fact it was used for soap, lubrication, textile processing, and mostly, to burn in lamps. It's surprising that the whales didn't think of using it for all that themselves. I began to wonder where baby oil comes from, proving that you can think about things too long.

     At the Thompson Exhibition Building the tales of some adventurous seafarers are on display along with artifacts from their journeys, such as scrimshaw, which are meticulously etched pieces of whale teeth. The detail in this art is impressive, and even more so if they forgot to take the teeth out of the whale beforehand. You can see the tusk of a narwhal here, a whale with a bony protrusion coming out of its head, like a "unicorn of the sea." Why they call it a unicorn I don't know, it's not like it has an ear of corn coming out of its head.

     The nautical instruments shop sold navigational tools, compasses and other items for fixing your position at sea. I say if your position ain't broke, don't fix it. They had sextants, which I'm too much of a lady to go into here. I'm not sure exactly what a sextant does, but suffice it to say that everything had to be done manually back then. They also had many antique clocks, and we had to get out of there before 12 o'clock noon hit and all the chimes went off.

     The chandler sold items and provisions for the trip, and the blacksmith forged a personal relationship with the ship's captains by making all kinds of ironwork, from gaffs to anchors. The ropehouse is by far the longest building there, because a ropemaker would actually have to walk a straight line carrying the entire length of the rope behind him, weaving the strands together. The original building was four times the length of this 250-foot structure. Could just anyone do this work? I think knot.

     Many of these disciplines are flourishing again as the Mystic shipbuilders refurbish the Mayflower II, a replica of the original on hand from Plymouth, Mass. The Mayflower carried the pilgrims from the original "Brexit." Now that they see what's going on in America, they may want to go back. As I strolled the grounds of Mystic and talked with the artisans there and learned how much goes into it all, I will never again complain about "shipping and handling" charges. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

I HAVE A BEEF

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (07-27-17)

     There are plenty of reasons that you may not want to go out to dinner with me, so the following is not an exhaustive list. For one thing, it's like going to dinner with a 4th grader. I'm not going to like anything remotely sophisticated, I just basically want a cheeseburger. So after tennis with George and Pam we decided to check out a fairly new burger place in the area. I would expect to sit down, order the cheeseburger, and move on to harder subjects, like 4th grade Social Studies. Ordering a cheeseburger should be the easiest thing you do all day. But I soon learned that NOTHING is easy anymore.

     This is the kind of place where they bring you what looks like a wine bottle, and you didn't even order wine, and you get all excited, but it's only water. I pretend to sniff the cork and ask, "What year is this?" The waitress looks at me like she can't believe I don't know what year this is. The water is locally sourced, because I can see the tap from my seat.

     I looked over the complicated mine field of a menu so I can order this cheeseburger using the process of elimination, and I couldn't believe all the stuff I had to eliminate. One burger had "smoke sauce," and I didn't want to get charged for that- I could just hold the sauce under my car's exhaust pipe, or order it with second-hand smoke sauce. There was something called "wham bam" sauce, which I wanted to order just so I could say "Thank you, ma'am" when the waitress brought it. You could get a salad with pickled onions. I wanted to ask if I could get onioned pickles instead, but I was afraid that once I got started I wouldn't be able to shut up.

     There was Black Forest bacon available. I don't know about you, but I've been in a lot of forests and I never once saw any bacon. There were buckwheat groats, which I'm sure to most people are self-explanatory, and there was ancient grain tabbouleh, which sounds like it was dug up in an archaeological expedition.

     The mission statement of the place assures me that all the animals that I am about to enjoy were free-range, pasture-raised and humanely cared for right up until the time that I impolitely ate them. Instead of encouraging me, this thought kind of bummed me out, because I started thinking about my cow, and what its life was like. How ironic that it lived its life on a free range, and then ended it on a really expensive one.

     The baby kale was the saddest story on the menu. Still a little green, this poor kale was cut down in the bloom of its youth, before it even had a chance to know what life was about. Was it martyred for some culinary masterpiece at Nobu? No, it was sacrificed to be a garnish somebody's hamburger (not mine). At those prices it also garnished their salary.

     After dinner the waitress came around with a portable credit card machine and settled the bill right at our table. You can press a button that figures out her tip automatically, which removes the possibility of me leaving my customary 16 and three-quarters percent tip. Which is because of my 4th grade math- sometimes I remember to carry the 1, and other times I leave it to find its own method of transportation.

     I should probably note that after all was said and medium-well-done, we had a great meal. I was assured that all the ingredients were locally harvested, and asked in advance whether they wanted to participate in my cheeseburger. Finally I told them to just bring me an entire elk and a Phillips head screwdriver, and I'll farm-to-table the damn thing myself. And bring me a plate of glutens, it was the only thing on the menu that was free.

Friday, November 3, 2017

JUST A STAGE I’M GOING THROUGH

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (07-20-17)

     This year's Pleasantville Music Festival was held on July 8th, and it ran quite smoothly, in spite of the fact that I was a volunteer on the Stage Crew. In order to keep things flowing onstage, we first had to assemble it. The crew chief from the rental company backed a large panel truck out onto the field, and some burly union guys attached a ramp and started unloading a bunch of risers. The word "riser" is a bit of a misnomer, since while I was waiting for them to rise, the crew was busy bolting them together. Good thing the guys knew how all the pieces fit, because I imagined myself trying to figure it out by reading the directions, misspelled in English, Spanish, French but not Chinese. Once I ordered a beach chair from Amazon and it took me an hour to figure out how to put it together.

     I finally learned what "stage right" and "stage left" mean. For instance, stage right is the place opposite of where I went when they told me to go there. When they said, "Stage left!" I told them no it didn't, it was right behind me! Union guys don't have a whole lot of time for people like me.

     We finally constructed all the stages and showtime rolled around. I checked out various bands and concession booths until it was time to load one band off and the next act on. I was walking around with all the swagger of someone who has earned his blue-and-white wrist band. I was free to drift in and out of the backstage area where the food was. I dished myself out some chicken piccata, although it might have been beef and peppers, I didn't bring any test equipment.

     They were pretty serious about recycling this year, and they had several different containers to separate the trash into. They had one for plastics, one for metals, one for compostable foodstuffs and one for nuclear waste. There was a lady guarding the area who was pretty serious about which bin you threw stuff out in, and she may have been armed. I had a disposable plate that looked like paper but felt like plastic, and she was watching me like a hawk to see which can I would put it in. If I made the wrong choice she looked like she might brain me with a soup ladle, file it in the plastics bin and toss me out with the compostables.

     I asked her, what if I was throwing out a Guns n' Roses record? The band is heavy metal, the record itself is plastic and the roses are compostable. She reached for her walkie-talkie, and I didn't want any of this to get back to Guns n' Roses so I just backed up to the tray tables and put more food on my plate so I wouldn't have to throw it out.

     The rain couldn't stay away, but the sun came out just in time for nightfall. The weather had not dampened anyone's spirits, although it had dampened their lawn chairs. I checked out Living Colour and Blues Traveler and a lot of other great acts. The band Ripe was fun, there were about seven of them stomping around over on the Party Stage, and I was yelling out at them to take it easy in case we forgot a bolt or something, but nobody heard me.

     Soon enough it was all over, and we were loading Blues Traveler's equipment into a truck. With all that gear it's a wonder they traveled anywhere at all. As we broke down the platform I remembered Shakespeare once said, "All the world's a stage!" Thank god he was wrong, because I never noticed Shakespeare offering to bolt it together. So here is a warning to anyone who has aspirations to take the stage: It's heavy as hell!

Friday, October 27, 2017

KICKING AND SCREAMING

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (07-13-17)

      Is there any better idea than playing a family-friendly game of kickball on a beautiful, sunny Fourth of July afternoon? What I mean to say is that ANYTHING is a better idea than playing a family-friendly game of kickball on a beautiful, sunny Fourth of July afternoon. That is, if you are over the age of 50 and have any pride at all.

      Our friends Pete and Jenn had a lovely neighborhood Independence Day party and thought it would be fun to let the adults and kids play in backyard game of kickball. A great opportunity for us grownups to get out on the field, show the youngsters that we still have what it takes, and then get together afterwards for an MRI.

      By arriving late I spared myself the indignity of being picked last to be on the team. Traditionally, the team captain picks his or her squad out of the available pool of players based on athletic prowess. I'm used to being picked last, usually at some point after the game is over. I suggest that from now on that the teams be chosen alphabetically, starting in the middle. Sometimes I am selected as Equipment Manager or Head of Groundskeeping, which are positions of leadership far more important than actually participating on the field.

      Kickball rules are similar to those of baseball, with a couple differences. One is that if you hit a baserunner with the ball while in between bases, the runner is out. This rule is called "Indian rubber," which is either politically incorrect or completely nonsensical, depending on which Indians are involved. Either way, it's simply an excuse for little kids to throw things as hard as they can at adults, who are slower and larger targets. You'd better have good aim if you attempt it, because several throws ended up in the vegetable garden. We had to improvise a new rule involving zucchini, but I don't have time to go into that here. There were some trees on the field of play. The crabapple was foul and the fir was fair. If you kicked it into a tree you could wait for it to come down and catch it for an out, if you had the time.

      I thought I would be a little faster on the basepaths than I was. Little kids who seemed barely out of the embryo stage were zooming around me all over the place. I have long strides and I did get to first base using much fewer steps, when I got there at all. If that's not a legitimate statistic it should be.

      I managed to kick into a double play, and failed to get on base until I bunted by mistake, which brought forth jeers and catcalls, even from cats. I couldn't seem to get to third base, even though I had it punched into my GPS. It seemed even more difficult to get to third base now than it was in high school.

      On defense it didn't go any better. One ball bounced off my face before I was able to catch it (the ball, not my face). Another time I ran into a little kid as we were both trying to make the play, him with his hands and me with my face again. Then a ball bounced off the head of a statue that sat in the woods beyond center field and caromed back onto the field, where the second basegirl stepped on the bag to record an out, and I was forced to consider the possibility that inanimate objects were making better plays in the field than I was.

      We played for a while, paused for the seventh inning stretcher, to collect those fallen in the line of duty, then played some more. It's hard to outlast kids. Eventually the cheeseburgers started to come off the grill and food won the war of attrition. The last thing I wanted was to make an error at the plate.

Friday, October 20, 2017

HOLDING FOURTH

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (07-06-17)

     I would like to congratulate the town of Somers and the Lions Club for hosting another fun-filled Independence Day fireworks extravaganza this year at Reis Park. Watching fireworks is one of the few things that the internet has failed to improve upon, i.e., ruin. You can't watch them on a two-inch iphone screen and get anything out of the experience. Just for the record, the same is true for music, television, movies and newspapers, but I don't have time to go into that right now. You need to show up to behold the random patterns of exploding light, feel the power of the report hanging in the air. That reminds me, I have a report hanging in the air that I forgot to finish in the fifth grade, I wonder if it's too late to hand it in.

     Andrea was there again this year with her band, playing some classic rock. Classic rock means anything that actually has a guitar in it. She had a bunch of little girls helping her out by dancing around onstage. When the band broke into "I Want Candy," the girls seemed genuinely disappointed that there was no actual candy. The music stopped abruptly when someone reported a missing child, but resumed just as abruptly when it was discovered that the missing child was one of the girls dancing around onstage, and she had not missed anything.

     There was a drone hovering over the proceedings for a while, which was slightly creepy, and we were pointing it out to others. It was a "Superman moment," like when the townspeople, in a confounded frenzy, glanced skyward and cried, "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" People who are that easily stupefied by birds and planes could cause a panic at a magic show.

     I don't know what the drone was there for, I assume to take pictures of the fireworks, although it could have been carrying out some sort of reconnaissance mission to try to find a Dunkin' Donuts or something.

     When I was a kid we used to light sparklers on the 4th of July and wave them around indiscriminately next to flammable objects, for fun. I don't see them much anymore, so I guess they were outlawed. Probably some kid lit his hair on fire, and because of him, now NONE of us can light our hair on fire, regardless of whether it would be an improvement or not. It was probably the smoke from his hair that violated the park's no-smoking policy. Instead, they sell these LED spinning light whirligigs and geegaws that look like little UFOs. They don't seem dangerous, but I bet they could louse up your cellphone service.

     I listened to the fireworks with my eyes closed and imagined Francis Scott Key writing about the only thing he could hear, confined in his jail cell: the bombs bursting in air. Hey, I'm a songwriter, too. If it had been me in that situation writing the Star Spangled Banner, I like to think I would have done the same thing, but I doubt if I could hear anything over the sound of my constant sneezing in that musty prison air. My National Anthem would have included a couple patriotic lines about dust motes.

     I was drinking water all day since I didn't see anything stronger available, and it was taking its toll. I didn't know if it was ethical to use the handicapped port-a-potty. My knee would certainly qualify as handicapped, but that's not the part that had to go, so I figured we should angle over towards the parking lot and slip out during the "grand finale" to beat the rush. Next year, I propose that they fire off the grand finale first so I don't miss it. I got caught in the traffic anyway, since the police make you wait until the shuttle buses are filled so you don't run over a bunch of kids on your way out. By the way, these are the same kids who almost ran ME over a hundred times before the fireworks even started.

Friday, October 13, 2017

SINGING A FEW BARS BEHIND BARS

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-29-17)

     I'm one of those guys who thinks that too much exposure to Broadway show tunes can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, inflammation, stomach pain and blotchy skin. Please use only as directed, by a qualified stage director. Last Thursday was different. I was privileged to be among a select audience invited to hear a recital of songs performed by inmates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The roles were reversed, and we were the captive audience. I was curious to see if music could survive there, on a diet of frozen meatloaf and spaghetti.

     The place is a maximum security prison, so first we had to wait on line to be processed. That means we empty everything out of our pockets, and store our cellphones in a locker. Mine is still in there, but it's up for parole in six months.

     They waved us with those metal detector wands. I remember when security guards used to search you manually, and I almost got myself taken down plenty of times when I got too fidgety during the pat down. It would be so ironic to get tased for being ticklish, when there are so many other good reasons to tase me. There was no cavity search, but I had just been to the dentist the week before. After I was processed I felt a little better, like cheese but without the holier than thou attitude.

     Then it was showtime. The songs were presented in a cafe setting, which the inmates had painted and decorated themselves. They offered a sentence or two about the artist or the songwriter, and "sentence" is not a word to toss around lightly here. They belted out songs by Carole King, Johnny Cash and Leonard Bernstein. They covered "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "The Color Purple." They poked a little fun at themselves with "Ain't Misbehavin'," and provided some situationally-updated lyrics for "If I Were a Rich Girl."

     The girls were fantastic. All of them could carry a tune, although some carried it quite a bit farther than others. Judging by some of their reactions, some of the songs hit close to home, especially those about children, family and time lost. Led by Broadway veteran Anne Twomey Lloyd and ably accompanied by arranger/composer Michael Minard, they all shared a heartfelt enthusiasm, and a genuine feeling that special moments in life are found wherever you make them.

     Prison is a pretty regimented place. Every note that is sung there has to fall in line and play by the rules. You can't have quarter notes wandering around where only half notes are allowed, and you can't have a rest in the middle of a measure unless it is approved in advance. And yet even in a highly regulated environment, music rose from the auditorium. What probably seemed like growing a tree on the dark side of the moon when they started, blossomed into a magnolia by showtime.

     The program was made possible by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a non-profit organization that runs programs in New York prisons through which inmates can express themselves through the arts and transform their lives from outwardly-based to inwardly-based.

     These are women who have done bad things in their lives, and there are those who would question why we should point resources in their direction, when so many other sectors of society go without. It's a good question, as austerity sucks the arts out of school and community budgets. The answer lies in the fact that most prison inmates eventually return to a life outside these walls. And while they are inside them, they can either learn skills that will make them better at what they did before, or they can learn self-discovery and self-worth. That choice is mostly up to us.

     If music follows these women around for the rest of their lives, it has been proven more likely that that the police will follow someone else. I'd like to thank them for an enjoyable evening, and I'd also like to thank them for not singing "Tomorrow," because you can bet your bottom dollar that I'd be singing that damn thing until somebody locks ME up and throws away the key.

Friday, October 6, 2017

LOFTY VIEWS ON A RIVER CRUISE

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-22-17)

     I've never gone on a cruise before because I've had recurring nightmares about all the things that could go wrong. In one nightmare I board the ship, and notice that the other passengers are wearing legionnaire's hats, there are legions of them and they all have runny noses and a persistent cough. In another the captain announces that we'll be experiencing some rough weather due to the confluence of a hurricane, monsoon and tornado occurring directly above the ship. In a third, I am singled out of the audience during the staff show and forced to wear a blonde wig and dance with a French woman to the song, "Barbie Girl."

     But I finally went, on a river cruise up the Rhine, and thank goodness none of those nightmares came true. Except the last one. And now I'm appearing in the nightmares of others. I expected to be forced to walk the plank sometime on the third day.

     I'm too cheap to travel first class, so we were in a small berth, more like a child berth, on a low level probably in between the boiler room and the cargo hold. We did have a nice big window, but it was right at sea level. You'd be surprised how many angry ducks there are on the Rhine river. We passed castle after castle, but we could only see into the basement. I could make out a dungeon, with a lot of torture devices, but it could have been a home gym.

     The castles were lovely but I don't see why they were built at all. If the Normans, for instance, came over from Norm or wherever they're from, and wanted to conquer our house, first they would complain about the driveway. Then they would raid the fridge, turn on the TV and ask, "Why does this couch smell like cat pee?"

     We boarded the boat in Strasbourg, which is the biggest city in the Alsace region of France. An Alsatian is the same as a German shephard, and that applies to all dogs and some humans. The next day we stopped in the wonderful little town of Rudesheim, overseen by the statue of Germania, which represents the unification of Germany. If you take the gondola up to the pedestal the views are breathtaking, although that might be the altitude.

     We proceeded on up the Rhine, our cameras working overtime, along with our barmaids. Greg, one of the only other Americans on the boat, noted, "Castle, church, village. Repeat as necessary."

     On the fifth day we reached our destination, Amsterdam. If you've ever been to this lovely city, and all went right, you probably don't remember a thing about it. Or so you allege. There are so many ways to get yourself killed in Amsterdam, and all of them involve crossing the street. If you can maneuver in between the bicycles and pedestrians, cars and buses, the tram suddenly appears out of nowhere and you have to dive for cover. Don't dive into the canal, because the traffic there is worse.

     Then we were off on the train to Berlin. We traveled the country of Hamburg and Frankfurt, and I got to thinking how nice it would be to get back to the States and get myself a hamburger of frankfurter. I dreamt of a REAL American breakfast. And by that I mean a Belgian waffle, French toast, a cheese Danish and an English muffin.