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

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Friday, December 15, 2017

WHERE THE SUN DON’T SHINE

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (08-31-17)

     Where were you when the lights went out? For two minutes and thirty-eight seconds last week, the Earth was plunged into blackness. It was thrilling, it was awesome and it was slightly darker than usual. I was in my office during the Great Eclipse of 2017, looking out my window across the Hudson River, waiting for the big show. The light dimmed a little, but it just seemed like a cloudy day with an eclipse in the middle of it. I was somewhat whelmed, but I wouldn't say that I was overwhelmed.

     If you did get a good look at this eclipse you may not be able to see the next one, since it's unhealthy to look directly at it. It could cause severe eye damage, like looking directly at a Trump press conference. You can't just throw on a pair of sunglasses and view it, because it won't be sunny out. You must purchase special glasses, certified ISO 12312-2. 

     This was bad news for me, because I have a hundred different pairs of glasses for everything. Sometimes I'm nearsighted so I have glasses for driving. I have a different pair of readers in every room of the house for looking at the paper. I have sunglasses, regular and prescription, and also reader sunglasses. I even have 3-D bifocals in case I go to a movie. So I needed prescription ISO 12312-2's, and then readers to look at the directions. Once I finally figured everything out I couldn't even see the sun because the damn moon was in the way.

     Of course, if you didn't have special glasses you could look at the eclipse with a "pinhole camera," and all you need is a small prick. Just poke a hole in a cereal box lined with white paper, and view a rendering of the sun from an opening in the other side. Another website said you could view the event through holes in a Ritz cracker, but did not mention that you might feel stupid doing so.

     According to Neil Degrasse Tyson you could look through an ordinary colander to see the eclipse. By this time I figured the scientists were just goofing on everybody- hey, I saw "Revenge of the Nerds." But it turns out that you can look directly at the sun  through a colander, as long as you don't first remove all the wet spaghetti. If you do, you have to hold it above a piece of paper, and you'll see a bunch of little eclipses projected onto it through the holes.

     Animal behavior supposedly goes haywire during an eclipse. Judging by our animals' behavior there has been an eclipse going on for the last eight years at the very least. My cat is 8 years old and still chases its tail. If I was still chasing my tail at age 58 people would think I'm an idiot, or at least idioter than I already am.

     People were bragging about their location. "Do you have totality?" They asked. "Yes, of course I have totality. I have total partiality. Anything less would be-" "You're not in the swath, are you? I can tell you don't have totality just by looking at you. You're pathetic, although for other reasons. You wish you were in Carbondale, Illinois, like me," they sneered. I never pictured myself wishing I was in Carbondale, Illinois until that moment. I was stuck here with only partial totality and not even any carbon.

     I felt a little guilty that I had not been left in the dark, and vowed to not see the light next time. The next total eclipse is coming up in 2024, which is when I will be subsisting on a diet of wet spaghetti and Ritz crackers with a hole in them. It's only seven years away, so mark it on your colander.

Friday, December 8, 2017

ADVENTURE ON THE HIGH SEAS

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (08-24-17)

     Last week my friend Dave took me and a couple other friends out for a very pleasant tour of the Long Island Sound on his boat. He has a peppy little bowrider that he tows over to the Norwalk boat launch at Veteran's Park. The term "boat launch" brought back some vivid memories of when Dave and I owned a boat together. Dave taught me everything I know about how to pilot a boat. However, no one who's boat has been hit by mine should hold that against him, since he taught me a lot more than I learned. One thing that did sink in is that a boat is not something to sink in. When properly launched, it should not go straight into the air like a rocket ship.

     Do you know why it's called the Long Island Sound? Neither do I, because whatever the Sound sounds like, I couldn't hear it over the roar of the engine once we got out of the channel. We aired that baby out to the tune of about 40 miles per hour after we cleared the no-wake zone. Do you know why they call it a "wake?" Well, we flew over a big one and went airborne for what seemed like a few minutes, and when we landed it woke me right up from a nap I was planning two days in the future. We were out of the no-wake zone, but there should be a no-fly zone posted there instead.

     We cruised around for a while and took in the sights. There are extensive oyster beds in the area, but I doubt they got a whole lot of sleep. You can tell where they are by flags that stick up above the water, which makes the place look like a golf course made up entirely of water hazards. We motored by Westport, Sherwood Island and turned around near Fairfield.

     By this time everyone was getting hungry so we taxied into shallow water near what looked like a deserted island so we could eat our lunch. "Get ready to drop the anchor," Dave called, "and try not to scratch the paint with the anchor chain." Tony grabbed the anchor while I held the chain, and through a carefully-coordinated effort we were able to scratch most of the paint off the bow, but to our credit we didn't scratch any off the anchor chain. It was a beautiful day, and we had a bite to eat, drinking in the natural beauty of the area since no one remembered to bring beer. Here the quiet was interrupted only by the chatter of the herring gull and the call of the double-crested cormorant, which I took on my cellphone. Life on the deserted island didn't look like it included dessert, which was disappointing.

     But soon the cove started filling up fast with other boaters. People jumped in the water and began floating around on inner tubes, outer tubes, inflatable floaties and paddle boards, which are the new craze. Every time I see somebody on a paddle board they look as if they mistakenly thought that they would be having way more fun than they presently are, standing around on a surfboard. One guy looked at my sandwich forlornly, and then started paddling away in the general direction of Domenick's Deli.

     If I've learned anything at all from Gilligan's Island, it's to prepare for every eventuality before you board the boat. Sure, everyone made fun of the Howells for bringing a trunkful of cash with them on an island tour, but there are no ATMs at the sand bar, and I doubt they will take a personal check. Also, that transistor radio is going to be invaluable if we get shipwrecked and the Yankees play a day game. I'm guarding that radio with my life, because if somebody busts a transistor in it I have no idea where get another one.

     As the afternoon wore on and the shadows started getting longer it was time to weigh anchor and get back to the boat launch. Dave hopped onto the bow to retrieve the anchor before Tony and I could volunteer, and we powered up and headed towards shore. It was a short ride at top speed until we got to the channel, where you can only go five miles per hour, and I was expecting the guy on the paddle board to pass us.

     I have a friend who has a giant sailboat, and I can't imagine what happens if you get all the way out past the bay and the wind dies down. Well actually, I can imagine it, that happens to be my strong suit. I picture me and two other couples, drifting out from Long Island for a few days, and now we're somewhere near the Galapagos Islands. "I'm pretty sure I can get us back home, if you'll just let me generate some wind by telling a few stories about how I got kicked out of my high school math class for not baking cookies." "That's okay, I think the wind is about to pick up," they all reply, almost in unison, though weak from lack of food and water.... 

Friday, December 1, 2017

DECONSTRUCTING A DECONSTRUCTION

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

     My sister Kathy got tickets at Jacob Burns Film Center for a filmed performance of Scott Freiman's "Deconstructing the Beatles." There are only two Beatles left, so he may be ahead of schedule. Mr. Freiman is a composer, musician and producer, and he's carved out quite a little side career for himself by giving lectures about the group, and how their most famous songs made the journey from inspiration to vinyl. 

     I have never been to a deconstruction before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I dissected a butterfly once in science class, but when I put it back together there were still some parts leftover, a thorax, a leg and and an antenna, although the antenna turned out to be from somebody's car.

     This presentation covered "The Beatles," more commonly known to fans as "The White Album," in some ways their most complex, in some ways their most simplistic, and in most ways their hardest to keep clean. The Beatles wanted to return from the psychedelic trip they went on with "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," where they took production and cover art to extremes they had not explored before.

     Scott Freiman explained that the Beatles longed to get back to a simpler form of songwriting, so in some ways they deconstructed themselves. They packed up and left for an ashram in India to learn how to meditate, and by the time they finally got back to recording, their manager Brian Epstein had died, George Martin briefly left, Ringo walked out, their engineer flew the coop, Yoko infiltrated the studio and basically all hell broke loose.

     But from those sessions came some of the group's most enduring music, and Freiman told the stories behind them. For instance, "Dear Prudence" was written about Mia Farrow's sister, who was also at the ashram, and meditated so assiduously that she wouldn't come out of her room. There is probably a fine line between assiduous meditation and agoraphobia, but I'm just thankful that Mia Farrow's sister wasn't named Debbie or Lulu.

     The real revelation is that as original as the Beatles were, creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. The Beatles' influences came out on the White Album maybe more so than any other, since much of the material was written individually. Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys inspired "Back in the USSR," Donovan taught John Lennon the picking style used in "Dear Prudence," Eric Clapton provided the guitar lead for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," a Nigerian musician lent Paul McCartney the phrase, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and none other than Bach donated the form Paul used in "Blackbird."

     Freiman didn't get into that whole conversation about whether Paul is dead or not, so I thought I'd pick up the ball here. Back in the '70s every Beatles album supposedly had a boatload of clues supporting the theory that McCartney had died in a car crash and was replaced in the band by a look-alike. At the time you could hear all sorts of references to his untimely demise if you listened closely. John says, "I buried Paul" at the end of "Strawberry Fields," but it's kind of hard to hear and sounds more like "I married Paul." My friends told me to play the record backwards but I couldn't reach the tonearm when I stood that way.

     There are other clues, too. On the cover of "Abbey Road," Paul walks barefoot in a funeral-like procession. It is well known that people who are dead walk barefoot. Also, on "Magical Mystery Tour" Paul is dressed as a walrus, which is a sign of death, although if you ask any walrus about it they'll say it's news to them. I've seen McCartney in an interview recently and he looks fine to me but I am no expert. Abe Vigoda was rumored to be dead many years before and after his death, and even during his death, so it's nothing new.

     Still, there are many other mysteries about the Beatles that are still unsolved, like who really was the fifth Beatle? Was it Pete Best? Was it Stu Sutcliffe? Billy Preston? George Martin? Mia Farrow's sister? That's already nine Beatles, and I can sense some controversy coming about who was the tenth Beatle. Also, 20 years ago today, when Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, why didn't he just hire people who already knew how to play? So, Mr. Freiman, if you're so smart, let's hear some answers, and while you're at it you can tell me what "Love Me Do" means.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A SHORE THING

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (08-10-17)

     Every year at around this time I head south and spend a weekend at the Jersey shore all by myself, to unwind and recharge my batteries. And when I say "by myself," I mean myself and the zillion or so other people vacationing between exits 98 and 117 on the Garden State Parkway. I like to spend a little time at the beach, check out some bands at the bars and ride my bike around.

     I hit 10th Avenue Beach on Friday when I got to Belmar. I've been to the black beaches of Santorini, the lush blue waters of Negril, Waikiki in Hawaii, and I can't think of any place I'd rather soak up some sun than the Jersey shore. I remember someone was once telling me about their dream vacation in Bora Bora: "There was not ONE SOUL on the beach!" They bragged. Is there anything more Boring Boring than that? Without big hair, small bikinis, bad tattoos and people yelling at their kids, I would be reduced to actually reading that book I brought. Later my wife asked me if I remembered to put on suntan lotion, and I said OF COURSE I remembered that I should have put on suntan lotion.

     In between waves several planes flew over the ocean towing banners with ads on them. Some were useful in reminding me what time happy hour was at the beach bar, and who was the DJ, in case we weren't already on a first name basis. Other planes flew by with some odd advertising choices, such as health insurance and radiology services. I'm at the beach and I ALMOST remembered to put on suntan lotion- I'm clearly not here for my health. One banner was advertising outlet stores at exit 100. If your house didn't come with outlets already in it, you got fleeced.

     At night I hit my favorite imbibery to see who was playing, as if I didn't know. I only come here once a year, but whenever that is, the Bruce Springsteen tribute band is always here too. I consider myself Springsteen-neutral, but I forget how many great songs he actually has, like "Growin' Up" and "I'm On Fire." But you need a singer who sounds like Bruce, and Bruce sings like he's passing a stone. It's hard to sing like that for two and-a-half hours- eventually that frog in your throat is going to croak. It might just be easier to pass a stone. You also need a glockenspiel player- a lot of Springsteen tunes have a glockenspiel in them. He was going to hire a lyre instead, but did not, due to the pants-on-fire situation.

     On Saturday I rode my bike up Ocean Avenue, and into the stiff wind my top speed was only about 5 mph. I figured at least on the way back, I wouldn't need to pedal, and may not even need the bike at all it was so breezy. I rode north about seven miles and I noticed a police car that said, "Deal Police," and I thought, wow, that is so considerate of the cops to let drug dealers know in advance what they were up to, but it turns out that Deal is the name of the town.

     On Saturday night The Nerds were playing. Those guys have been around forever it seems. They didn't over-geek their act, they were just a good solid band. The meek may yet inherit the Earth. The keyboard player seemed extra nerdy, and I tried to shout out a question about how to get my printer driver working, but he didn't hear me. They performed some crowd favorites, like "Shout!" Which has a part where everyone crouches down, while the band plays quietly. Then the chorus comes and everyone pops back up except for me, who did not have a round-trip ticket. They played that song, "I Like Big Butts!" A lot of women were pretty enthusiastic about that one, for obvious reasons.

     By the time Sunday rolled around, I hurt all over from that long bicycle ride, I was sunburned, hungover and I had a headache. I needed the kind of prolonged rest that only three hours on the Garden State Parkway can provide.

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!