Sunday, December 30, 2007


I've taken my camera out to practice with it the past couple of days despite having a cold that should have kept me home on the couch, which is where I spent most of today.

Tampa Bay Downs - 12/29/07

Florida Botanical Gardens - 12/29/07

USF Botanical Garden - 12/28/07

USF Botanical Garden - 12/28/07

Friday, December 28, 2007

Alumni Meet

Note: This is the last in a multi-part series about my trip to Pennsylvania the weekend before Christmas. You might want to scroll down to the entry titled Audubon and work your way back up.

The alumni meet's purpose was not solely to amuse current members of my high school's team. Nor was it for the alumni to compare how fat we've gotten. It was a fundraiser. Our $30 entry fees will help pay for jackets or something else that the team members' parents will throw away when the kids go off to college.

Give this generation credit, though. When I swam, we raised our own money with a swimming marathon. We'd get people to pledge a few pennies per lap and one day over Christmas break our practice would simply entail swimming 200 laps. One year my brother Jim got people to pledge a total of $300. Even more impressive was that he collected the money and proudly handed our coach three brand new $100 bills.

The kids now have us raising the money for them. Smart.

There was also a bake sale. So that's why after coming back to Jamie's place from the Martin Guitar factory we spent the afternoon decorating cookies. Jamie did most of the decorating but I did just enough that when the woman running the sale asked Jamie if she had created the cookies all by herself and Jamie said yes within my earshot, I could needle her. "All by yourself, huh?"

The Cookie Maker

I shot another frame with Jamie in focus instead of the foreground but she preferred this one. It appears I'm taking requests on the blog now so just leave yours in the comments and I'll get to it as soon as I can.

If it's OK I'm going to gloss over the whole Pennsylvania Turnpike incident currently under appeal that caused a $2 toll to cost $18.25 except to say that the visit back north would not have been complete if I hadn't gotten at least one stick in the eye. "Welcome back to Pennsylvania, John! Now screw you!"

The meet was a blast. I was probably not the only one sore the next day but no one suffered serious injury or water intake during the races and some of them resembled actual competition. In a concession to our decrepitude, the butterfly race was shortened to 25 yards and in the 35-and-over race all of us finished within a second of each other. And I was wrong. I could have lasted two laps. Maybe not gracefully but I could have finished. But it was probably just as well. I had enough trouble moving my arms the next day.

The pictures from the meet didn't turn out well. My camera refused to cooperate. It wanted to shoot with the flash and I thought there was plenty of light. I think the camera blurred most of the images to spite me. When I wondered later if it was fitting that the pictures matched the fuzziness of my old swimming memories, Jamie wondered if I was reaching too far to make a metaphor.

Afterward most of us went to the former Eagleville Hotel to catch up and tell lies. The place is called Brother Paul's now.

Below is supposed to be a Flash slide show with more pictures of the meet and the meeting afterward if it will work. It works for me using my Firefox browser. Not so much using Internet Explorer.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Martin Guitar Factory

It was great to see Rich. Except for the white patches in his beard, he looked a lot like he did 20 years ago. OK, so he didn't have the beard, either, back then but, unlike your humble correspondent, he still has as much hair on top of his head as he did back then.

He also has a wife, two kids, a dog and a nice house in a good neighborhood, or at least what looked like a good neighborhood judging by the size of the houses and the amount of electricity their inhabitants were willing to expend to light their Christmas displays. I was impressed.

When it was time for me to go, Rich gave me directions to get from his house to the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension. He even drew a map, which I tried to explain was unnecessary because my laptop has GPS and I could follow my maps, but it seemed important to him to spell it out for me so the gracious thing for me to do was to nod my head gratefully as he drew.

But I was venturing into the unknown in a way. I was driving to another high school classmate's home near Easton, Pa. Jamie is the one who Googled me down and e-mailed me out of the blue last month. When I say "out of the blue" I mean that the last contact I had with her before she popped into my Inbox was in high school. Back then we didn't have e-mail. That's how long ago that was.

Rich had mentioned the alumni swim meet in an e-mail exchange we had back in October but Jamie's note also included the entry form and a more direct plea for my appearance. Back in high school a personal invitation from Jamie would have shot me to the moon. I had a terrible crush on her at one point. When I finally mustered the courage to make a fumbling attempt to ask her out, she deftly -- but pretty gently -- swatted it aside and I eventually got over it. Several years later I heard she had married her high school sweetheart and moved to New Jersey.

That's the last I thought I'd ever hear.

Even now I expected to read about the 2.5 kids, the large house with the white picket fence and all the rest of what Americans are supposed to do with their lives after high school. Only she was single again, had no children of her own and had moved to Easton, in part, to live near her sister and her two nephews.

In a later e-mails we traded, she offered use of her guest room and made it plain that hosting me would not be a hassle and, in fact, she would appreciate the company. For that matter, so would I. So instead of to a hotel located closer to our high school, I was winding my way north to Easton, wondering what it would be like to see her after all this time.

When I got to her place I got to wonder a little more. I knocked on the screen door and waited. No answer. I opened the screen door and rapped on the inner door. That got results. The man in the neighboring unit of their duplex opened his door. I smiled and waved. He smiled and waved in reply before receding back into his house and I waited some more. Finally Jamie opened her door.

We had been corresponding and we spoke on the phone a couple of times so the reunion was not as strange as it could have been. But I thought it was trusting of her to open her home to someone with whom she'd had so little contact. Maybe the delay came when she realized the same thing!

We stayed up talking until about 12:30 a.m., which is way past my usual bed time, and went to our respective rooms with tentative plans to visit the Martin Guitar Company factory in Nazareth the next day. When I knew I would be staying at Jamie's, I checked and saw that the Martin factory was less than ten miles from her house. As a proud owner of a Martin myself, I looked forward to making the pilgrimage to their source.

Martin guitars are world famous and its guitars are played by just about everybody who is anybody among acoustic guitar players. They are also played by nobodies like me who are willing to spend the pretty penny it costs to own one. Even in my unskilled hands, the Martin has a wonderful feel and sound to it. I was glad I bought mine even before I saw how they were made and met some of the people who work at the factory.

Martin usually offers tours of its factory, where it still produces its guitars right here in the U.S. of A., but tours had ended for the holidays. It museum was open, though, and we got to see displays detailing the factory's history, old guitars as well as vintage and special edition guitars made in honor of many of Martin's famous players.

Jamie and I got there as the employee party was going on. That's what the people gathered around the two guitarists are doing.

The museum also has what it calls the "Pickin' Parlor," where you can ask to play some vintage Martin guitars. The people at Martin were exceedingly kind and it made me even gladder to know that I had bought one of their guitars.

One of them even gave me some guitar picks. (I offered to pay for them but she said no.) Jamie was willing to indulge me so I played her a few songs. I was nervous at first! First because I don't normally play for any audience other than my cat. Second because many of my songs are ones a guy would sing to his girlfriend and I didn't want to give Jamie the wrong idea. I was a house guest. She shouldn't have to worry that I was looking for an opening to put the moves on her. That's why the pictures she took of me playing don't include me looking at her.

Reunion Tour

John James Audubon's mansion is not the only sight to see in his namesake town. No, sir-ree. There's the former Audubon Inn, which now houses a lawyer's office. And old Bud's Bar, which has seen better days. If you can look past the paint scheme, which was not there when I last saw it, you'll notice on the left where the building appears to have been carved into to accommodate cars and trucks. I don't think that was planned. I think passing traffic simply knocked away part of the building.

I did drive by the house I lived in but didn't stop to photograph it since I already have pictures of it from the time I lived there. Those are more relevant to me. I did take pictures at my old high school. I didn't have any of those.

From there I wandered west toward Collegeville, stopping along the Perkiomen Creek to take a couple of shots there. After a lunch of genuine Philly soft pretzels from the Pretzel Factory in Collegeville -- MMMMMM! I circled back around to Route 363 and stopped at the Worcester Historical Society building and the cemetery behind it. Later I drove by Markley Farms Swim Club, where I worked one summer as a lifeguard making a whopping $2.95 an hour.

It's also the place where I suffered the only injuries requiring stitches so far in my life. Once I hit my head on the diving board in an ill-fated attempt doing a back flip. The other time I hit my face just below my mouth on a basketball moving at high speed when my friend Rich made an ill-fated attempt at a trick shot.

That didn't come up in conversation when I visited Rich at his house that night.

Below is a Flash slide show of pictures I took during my travels that day. It doesn't seem to work in Internet Explorer but if you have a Firefox browser, it should display fine.


As mentioned, I ventured north to take part in an alumni swim meet at my old high school. Note use of the phrase "take part" rather than "compete." I am happy enough to report that I did not require emergency medical assistance afterwards.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I flew to Philadelphia Thursday, hopped into the best Chevy Cobalt that Enterprise had available and drove to Audubon, the small town in the Philly suburbs where I went though middle and high school. Yes, Audubon is named for the bird guy John James Audubon and, yes, the streets are all named after birds.

OK, there is Egypt Road so not all of them are but let's not get bogged down in technicalities here. I lived on Mourning Dove Road, which connected to Falcon Drive, which also branched off onto Meadowlark and Mockingbird Lanes. Bud's Bar wasn't always that color. However, for as long as I remember, it has been missing a chunk that appears to have been knocked out by passing traffic.

When I lived in Audubon, there was a bird sanctuary but I don't remember ever visiting it and I don't recall that there was supposed to be much to see for anyone who did. Not now. Now Montgomery County, probably to justify not letting developers plow the place under for new McMansions, has made the place into the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove. There's a paved driveway and places to park and everything.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Season's Greetings! It's Christmas season and I apologize for not spending the postage to send you a card to mark the occasion. Hallmark needs the money, you know, and I'm not being a good little consumer unless I spend, spend, spend! That's what the holidays are all about -- just ask any pundit judging the health of the U.S. economy by how much debt we're willing to pile up to pile gifts under the Christmas tree.

If you're on this woman's list, don't use the occasion to send one of those lovely home-made cards featuring the beatific faces of your smiling children. It's Christmas, not MyFamilyMas, according to this Grinch, with whom I'd rather not trade holiday cards anyway. Oops. I'm sure she's offended by my calling them holiday cards. It's Christmas; it's not a holiday.

A friend of mine who is a devout Christian (and who, fortunately, did not lose his sense of humor or good grace when he was reborn) wondered on his blog if he should feel guilty because his holi, er, Christmas card apparently declared war on Christians by featuring a photograph of his family.

I e-mailed him my thoughts that he should not feel bad. While I understood this woman's point, "it would be a shame to see Christmas become just a joyless exercise in proselytization."

In writing back, he brought up another common -- and commonly annoying -- annual practice of including a detailed account of the past year for the family. As if "see how wonderful we look" wasn't enough, they have to spell out how wonderful their lives are too. He wrote that he'd love to see one of these Christmas letters get real:

"....the kids are out of control; little Billy is now on Ritalin to control his violent outbursts, Megan makes mostly C's and a few B's in her special ed courses, and Johnny is also quite the underachiever. None of them are any good at sports, but they do love to play violent video games, and sometimes re-enact the games at home. It's a freaking circus around here. Bill and I both hate our jobs, and are now both on anti-depressants, which has leveled out our melancholy, but totally wiped out our sex drives...."

I told you he hadn't lost his humor! That was hilarious! He then closed by suggesting that I be the one to start the new trend. I wish I could but I'm as much of a poseur as the next guy. OK, maybe not but I have found it strangely coincident that while a reunion with high school classmates I haven't seen for at least a decade looms I have had no trouble finding motivation to go to the gym.

I have been affected less by the "keeping up with the Joneses" syndrome than most. I'm sure many of my former classmates now live in larger homes and drive fancier cars than I do. Many have been luckier in love than I have and married and had children while I live with a cat. Many of them make more money than I do. At least I hope they do -- what with all the spouses and children and houses and cars they're paying for.

I have had successes and failures over the years and, in all, I can't complain how things have worked out so far. I still have the means to grow and the room to do it. I'm not optimistic by nature yet for some reason I still believe in the possibility that my best days lie ahead. Besides, who wants to read the myriad ways I have managed to screw my life up over the years? Even if I could get my cat to smile for the picture on the card.

So, don't worry, if I haven't kept in contact with you. I won't inflict the details on you unless you ask for them.

Travel Ready

"When I die, I'm not going to wish that I had done more push-ups;
I'm going to regret not playing my guitar more."
I just printed the boarding passes for my US Airways flight to Philadelphia tomorrow. I'm going north to take part in an alumni swim meet at my high school. My first trip back to the area in more than ten years was spurred in part by a correspondence with an old classmate. We had no contact since high school until she e-mailed me out of the blue last month. Thank you, Google.

That experience could inspire an essay of its own. For now, I'll say that absence might make the heart grow fonder but it makes the brain grow forgetful. I have spent a lot of time lately thinking back to high school and the most striking thing is how little of it I remember. Like shards from a shattered mirror, I have only bits and pieces that still reflect anything from that time. There is no making up for 23 years of lost contact. In many cases, seeing old classmates will be like meeting new people except that I'll be pre-disposed to liking them and will be able to picture them with 80s hair.

I packed this morning before work, wondering if my few remaining winter clothes will be enough to withstand a Pennsylvania December. It was only a few days ago that my air conditioner stopped running. Last week, I swam a few practice laps in my community's outdoor pool.

Whenever I'm about to travel, a part of my brain acts as though I'm going away and never coming back. I have to set things in order. At the office today, I cleaned my desk, cleared out my e-mail box, caught up on any outstanding tasks I had and, save for a few slices of cheese, ate the last of the food I had in the office fridge.

I have a compulsion to clean the house before I go too. The place is pretty neat ordinarily but my computer room has some clutter that needs sorting and storing, the upstairs bathroom will get a good scrubbing and my home refrigerator is already clear of any open containers. I even did laundry this past weekend and if you have ever seen how high I can let that pile up, you'd know what a feat it was.

I don't know why I do all of this. I don't think it's because I'm afraid the plane will crash. I go through the same thing before I travel by car. It sometimes happens even before I go through a stretch of heavy freelance work in addition to my regular job. And if I really worried that I might die, maybe I'd do something sensible like have a will written. Instead I dust.

Maybe traveling is a mental chapter and cleaning before I go is a way of tying up the loose ends of one part of the story so I can start the next one fresh. The days before a trip do feel like an ending. There are arrangements to make and goodbyes to say and I find myself regretting things I can't squeeze into the schedule before I leave.

I haven't been playing my guitar as much as I'd like lately and last night, as I cleaned the stove top, a PBS show about Ralph Nader's run for the presidency played on the TV. Footage from a Nader campaign rally included Eddie Vedder singing and playing acoustic guitar and it saddened me that I haven't played my guitar as much as I should have. I haven't missed any workouts in the past few weeks, which is understandable for anyone about to show himself to old high school classmates in a Speedo, but it made me think: When I die, I'm not going to wish that I had done more push-ups; I will regret not playing my guitar or piano, taking pictures, telling TV stories or doing something else that created something, touched someone and nourished my soul.

It's great to put one's house in order. Better to have that task rightly prioritized far below things that should matter more.