Saturday, April 4, 2015

Everyone's a Critic


The experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have declared June 1 to November 30 to be “Hurricane Season.”  When they did this last year, I thought it was a bad idea, and sure enough, before long a Hurricane with the odd name of Arthur ambled up the east coast, messing up beach vacations.   No one declares a Volcano Season or an Earthquake Season for good reason; we don’t want to encourage such things.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doesn’t declare a Bubonic Plague Period, or Typhoid Time.  The Justice Department doesn’t announce a Murder Month, or a Kidnapping Week.  This is plain common sense.  In the same way, you don’t put a mobile home in an open field in Oklahoma unless you want to attract tornadoes, and you don’t hang a ham in your garage unless you want to attract stray dogs, flies, or Tommy Humphrey. 
NOAA has even gone so far as to pick out names for each storm this year, including Bill, Fred and Sam for the run of the mill storms; Claudette for a storm of French origin; and for a fierce tempest they never want repeated (or pronounced), Joaquin.  I am particularly troubled that they have chosen to call one of the storms Grace.  Even if this were not the name of our sweet daughter, it would still be a lousy name for a violent storm.   Why not Hurricane Hannibal, or Hurricane Hitler?  Or does NOAA think we can tame the beast by assigning it a benign name?  I’ve tried it.  It didn’t work with Pretty Boy Humphrey.

Talk of violent storms takes me back to South Florida, where we coexisted with hurricanes (sometimes just barely) for several years.  Remind me to tell you about playing ball there.  Oh never mind---you have enough things to remember.  I’ll tell you about it now. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Battle of Glenridge: Thus Always to Tyrants



My parents moved our family from Maryland to Central Florida in the summer after I completed sixth grade.  That fall, after a few traumatic weeks finding my way around my new school, it was becoming clear to me that none of the friends I had at Old Post Road Elementary in Abingdon, Maryland had been promoted to the seventh grade; or if they had been, clearly none had been assigned to Glenridge Junior High in Orlando.  Every living being in the school was a complete stranger to me; and if there were dead beings there, they were even stranger, although perhaps less complete.  

The campus was sprawling, covering several acres, and just a single story high, as are most Florida schools.  That way, if a building or two is swallowed by a sinkhole, or lost in a hurricane, it’s just a single story loss.  For some reason I had chosen Band as my seventh period elective, although I had two relevant problems; I couldn’t play an instrument, and I couldn’t read music.  Even today the smell of a clarinet reed strikes me with terror.  You would be terrified too if you were expected to play selections from Scheherazade with the aforementioned handicaps.  The Persian bride Scheherazade faced beheading if the king decided he wanted to hear no more from her.  I experienced a similar dread every time the teacher asked me to play.  I grew to hate Rimsky; and truth be told, I wasn’t that fond of Korsakov.

The alternative courses available during seventh period must have been really horrid---“Sinkhole Filling for Newcomers,” or “Sandspur Picking, 101.”  Sandspurs, for the uninitiated, are sharp spiny things, like three-dimensional asterisks, about the size of pencil erasers, and they’re as common in Florida as moss on trees. They stick to your socks, find a way to your skin and can’t be removed without drawing blood from your fingers.  Their primary function, it seems, is to keep Floridians from overdosing on Vitamins C and D by releasing a healthy bit of their blood each day.  Their secondary function is to make Phys. Ed class in the heat and humidity even more unpleasant than it would otherwise be, and make no mistake, it would otherwise be unpleasant enough.  

The worst thing about PE, of course, was showering with a slew of other boys, some of whom had so perfected the art of snapping a towel against an unsuspecting posterior that it would leave a welt.  The other worst thing (yes, there were two worst things about PE) was when, once every eight or ten days, presumably because the coach was in a foul mood, the dreaded words began to filter through the school from the earlier periods, “Happy Hour Today.”  Happy Hour was the name coined by the Marquis de Sade for an entire PE period devoted to jumping jacks, sit-ups, pull-ups, and laps around the track.  I believe he called it "l’heure joyeux."  Some of the kids blamed Happy Hour on the fitness initiative of President Kennedy (whose French wife, it was rumored, was related to the Marquis).  But I have come into possession of an old reel-to-reel tape recording from a closed-door session in Tallahassee.  The following is an exact transcript, with expletives deleted: 

Monday, January 26, 2015

When Blizzards were Blizzards

Earlier this winter, my brother Doug and his wife Nancy endured a Buffalo snowfall with accumulations recorded between five and seven feet----but enough about them.  Their storm can’t be compared to the one Donna and I survived when we lived there, the historic Western New York Blizzard of ‘77.  In those days, before the environmentalists got their hands on our atmosphere, America was cranking out pollutants to beat the band, and Buffalo was a major band beater.  The weather pattern then was as follows:  In Buffalo’s summer, which usually fell sometime between the first and fifteenth of August, industrial waste would block the sun’s rays and help to hasten the season we were famous for, winter.  In winter, moisture from Lake Erie would condense around the various toxins in the clouds, and the result would be the descent of huge, semi-metallic snowflakes, and lots of them. 

Yes, other cities received occasional snow pollution; my brother Kenny, who as a child in Baltimore would catch snowflakes on his tongue, still has tongue shrapnel, which along with his suspicious-sounding last name, makes it tough for him to get through airport security.  But Buffalo snow was renowned for its high metallic content.  When the mountains of snow eventually melted, almost always before the Fourth of July, our kids would earn spending money raking up the metal fragments in the yard and selling them back to one of the local steel plants.  The air pollution wasn’t especially good for our lungs, but in those days, you must remember, lungs were toughened by the second-hand smoke everyone inhaled in public places.

Let the record show that the recent snow in Buffalo was comprised entirely of young, flighty November flakes.  By contrast, the Blizzard of ‘77 used only mature, January snow.  In Buffalo, January flakes are ripe and plump, and they hit like mini-snowballs.  The flakes in that blizzard were especially fat; every time three of them landed on each other they formed a snowman.  Donna and I were in Northeast Philly visiting our friends, Wayne and Phyllis Clapier, when we heard a forecast of heavy snow for western New York, which didn’t alarm us.  If at that point they had called it the historic blizzard of ‘77 we might have been more concerned, but no one got around to naming it until later.  It’s also true that at the time I didn’t put much stock in meteorologists’ forecasts because I thought, “What qualifies someone who studies meteors to make predictions about the weather?”  It has since been explained to me that meteorologists focus not on meteors, but on meteorites, and anything that plunges into our atmosphere must have some effect on it.  So I stand corrected.