The One with the Bullseyes

When I was a kid, my uncle was on a bowling league. He spent every Wednesday and Saturday night at the bowling alley. He had his own ball, shoes and fancy chamois towelette. I don’t remember that he was unusually competitive. He just enjoyed the company of friends. The bowling alley was his Cheers, where everybody knew his name.

Despite his low-key attitude toward the game, he was quite good, often leading his team to victory, but this he attributed to certain rituals performed in succession. Much the way Rafa Nadal needs to organize his water bottles during a tennis match and Roger Clemens used to touch Babe Ruth’s statue in Monument Park before every Yankees game, my uncle had quite a few superstitions. When it was his turn, he picked up his ball, only after the pins had been set, not a moment before. He used his chamois towelette to wipe the ball, first with his right hand, then with this left, then with his right again. He ran his hand over the little fan in the ball carousel, once, twice, three times. Before his approach, he rose on his toes (twice), and then hustled down the lane to release the ball. Once it was on its way, he never looked back — never — until he stepped off the lane and into the seating area. Looking back was practically daring the bowling gods to push his ball into the gutter. These are the rituals I know about. He may have had dozens more, smaller ones, known only to him. I did get the sense that the list only got longer. If he didn’t play well one day, he didn’t scrap this bunch of rituals and start new ones. He just kept adding to them. During one regular league game on an average Saturday afternoon, all of his superstitions were somehow working in tandem.

Strike

He bowled one strike. Then another. Then another. By the time he’d bowled six strikes in a row, people from the other lanes quit bowling and gathered to watch.  Seven. Eight. The manager stopped making announcements for fear of breaking my uncle’s concentration. Each time it was his turn, he went through his routine. The other bowlers didn’t scoff. They had their own superstitions. Nine. Ten. Eleven. My uncle told me that as he got up for his final ball, “Everything around me faded away. It was like I had no peripheral vision. All I could see was the lane and the pins at the very end. Like tunnel vision.” He waited for the pins to set and wiped the ball with his towelette. He ran his hand above the fan. He rose on his toes and swung his arm back to release the ball. After he let the ball go, he said that, to his eyes, the lane went dark, but there was a glow around the pins. He walked off the lane, refusing to look back. Once he stepped into the seating area, he looked over his shoulder, still with that tunnel vision and saw the pins go down one by one as if in slow motion. Then the crowd, fifty strong by this time, erupted into cheers and applause. Twelve strikes in a row. A perfect game.

A perfect game was such an extraordinary thing, like a hole-in-one in golf or a no-hitter in baseball, that I always remembered it. In his typical modest way, my uncle said that it had less to do with skill and more to do with serendipity. And following his superstitions, of course.

I’m not a superstitious person by nature. I’m not worried about walking under ladders or Friday the 13th. But late one night, in a bar, I became a believer.

 

Three friends and I decided to play a game of darts we call cricket (known by various other names around the globe). Due to a serious deficit in hand-eye coordination, I’m not great at cricket, where the goal is to hit certain numbers on the dart board three times, but I’m always happy to drag my team down with me. Before I grabbed the darts for my first turn, I took a sip of beer and wiped the condensation from my hands on a napkin. I placed my left foot on the line first. I scratched an itch on my nose. I held the dart at eye level and made three small motions with my hand before throwing the dart. Bullseye. We cheered and my friend marked it on the scoreboard.

On my next turn, I followed the same routine to the letter. It had worked so well the first time, why not. Bullseye. Bullseye. Bullseye.

Bullseye

By the sixth bullseye, my teammate, who knew me so well, looked at me with perplexed concern and said, “Are you okay?”

I said, “It’s not me. It’s the routine.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Just get me a new napkin.”

Bullseye. My friend and I were just about to claim victory by closing out all the numbers. Another group, hoping to play darts after us, had sidled over and was keeping track. I heard one of them whisper, “She’s hit seven bullseyes so far.”

As I prepared for my final turn, I took a sip of beer, wiped my hands on a napkin, stepped up to the line left foot first, scratched my nose, flicked my wrist three times, and threw the dart. Bullseye.

“I didn’t know you were a ringer,” my friend on the other team said in a hushed tone of reverence. And my nickname became “Bullseye,” which I kinda liked. But I knew the truth.

It wasn’t me. It was the routine.

 

Do you follow a superstitious routine?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

The One with the Alligators

 

Alligator

Are you looking at me?

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth…. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”

~Marjory Stoneman Douglas

The Florida Everglades is a big place — 1.5 million acres to be exact — much of it inaccessible to humans, and much of it swampy and buggy. When I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago, I weighed my transportation options carefully. After serious consideration, I decided to rent a bicycle from the park information center.*

*Note: this was not the brightest idea I’ve ever had.

I set off on a rusty bike complete with a broken bell on the handlebar. For someone who lives in a canyon of steel, I loved not having a barrier to nature, able to see horizon to horizon, the blue of the sky sharply contrasted with the green of the sawgrass. Sawgrass grows nearly everywhere in this part of the Everglades. It can reach several feet tall in narrow, razor-sharp strands. When the wind blows, the strands make a whistling noise as they flap against each other. And, boy, does the wind blow.

 

 

Everglades National Park

Sawgrass as far as the eye can see

 

It felt like I was biking Stage 8 of the Tour de France through the Alps, even though the highest point in the Everglades is a mere eight feet above sea level. There is nothing to stop the wind as it rushes in from the Gulf of Mexico. Pedaling headlong into it, my leg muscles were on fire as the wheels barely turned. More than once I surmised it would have been quicker to walk. Then out of nowhere a colorful little bird, which I would learn later is a painted bunting, flew beside me at eye level. It was about the size of an orange and it was keeping pace with me, its wings flapping feverishly against the current. Then, I swear, the bird turned its little head and looked right at me as if to say, “See ya, sucker.” And it took off, leaving me in the dust.

Painted bunting bird

Painted bunting bird

At the information center, I’d been warned not to stray from the path. The park ranger eyed me. “You never know what’s lurking in the water.” In this area of the park, the thick sawgrass actually grows out of a slow moving river. Like a magician’s prop, the Everglades has a false bottom. It appears to be a grassy plain, but really it’s a unique river. It is fifty miles wide, just a few inches deep in some spots, and moves at a speed comparable to an old man with a walker. In most places it’s difficult even to see the water beneath the muck and reeds.

Everglades_Alligator

Hey, what’s that in the river?

I dutifully obeyed the rules, pedaling my little heart out on my squeaky bike when I nearly ran right into an alligator sunning himself on the path in all his scaly glory. I found him fascinating, but he couldn’t have been less interested in me. Millions of years of evolution have not come to the alligator as I suppose nature couldn’t improve on the design. Despite their clumsy appearance, alligators are superb swimmers and can run up to thirty miles per hour (!) in short bursts. Then, without warning, my new friend languidly opened his mouth wide. I mean wide. I could see his pinkish tongue and his many, many sharp teeth. I (perhaps foolishly) wasn’t afraid. It was so half-hearted, it was like he was yawning. But since I was out there alone and without cell phone service, I decided it was time to move on, lest he get some bright ideas for lunch.

 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her trademark hat.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her trademark hat.

I also learned about an amazing woman you’re likely to have never heard about. Her name was Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I’ve been captivated by this vivacious, straight-forward woman. She arrived in Florida in 1915 to escape an unhappy marriage. “I wanted my own life, in my own way,” she said. Soon she got involved in the movement to save the Everglades and became its most powerful public voice.

She worked with developers, politicians, farmers and indigenous tribes, and was instrumental in the creation of the Everglades National Park (1947). “You can’t conserve what you haven’t got.” It is not an exaggeration to say that if it wasn’t for Douglas, the entire ecosystem would be a faint memory, the land drained and paved over for another subdivision or shopping mall.

 

Today the Everglades faces a new set of issues. As a river of grass (the term Douglas coined), the rate of water flow into and out of the park is essential to keeping the ecosystem healthy and intact. That has been compromised by the sheer number of people now living just outside the park’s borders in Miami. Water is often diverted to meet the city’s needs. Another major concern is non-native species proliferating inside the park, namely pythons, and the Brazilian pepper tree and Australian pine tree, which have led to the endangerment of other species.

 

In the end, it took three hours to bike 15 miles. On a perfectly flat trail. Despite being reasonably in shape. So if you have the opportunity to go to the Everglades, take it. Just sign up for the park service tram. You’ll thank me later.

I'm going to make this into a t-shirt.

I’m going to make this into a t-shirt.

 

What was your most memorable wildlife encounter? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One with Maple Syrup


Syrup is big business. So big that two years ago it was the object of a major heist — an $18 million heist of six million gallons — from a Canadian syrup cartel. The Coen Brothers are making a movie about it. If this all sounds a little too fantastical to be true, well, the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Maybe you’ve never given syrup much thought. I hadn’t, until my friend and I visited Montreal. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec. The sap is harvested from trees during a short window of time in the spring — the “sugaring off” season, which, as luck would have it, coincided with our trip. For the Québécois, sugaring off is a rite of spring, much the way many of us in the northeastern U.S. look forward to apple picking as a sign that autumn is here.

We decided to spend a cold April day visiting a Québécois cabane à sucre, or sugar shack.  And, no, I’m not talking about that quirky earworm of a song “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Glimmer and the Fireballs, which I will not link to here for fear of a blog mutiny. I’m talking about an honest-to-goodness cabin in the woods dedicated to turning sap into syrup.

When the nights are still chilly, but the days are warm, little buckets like these pop up all around Quebec.

Maple Buckets

 

Some days the buckets have to be emptied two or three times. I imagine burly, bearded men wearing plaid flannel shirts trudging through the woods to collect the buckets one by one, but now many farmers collect the sap via a vast network of plastic hoses that wind their way through the trees.

Maple sugar tubes

 

The sap is then brought into the sugar shack, where it is poured into large vats and boiled into thick amber goodness. What surprised me most was that the sap is clear. This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I thought it was a brownish color. That color is only achieved after the sap is boiled and the sugar caramelizes.  It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

There is one reason to go to a sugar shack — the food. The feasts that are served at sugar shacks range from down home to avant-garde. We went the down home route — checkered tablecloths, family-style platters, wood-burning fireplace and always the jug of syrup on the table. We learned quickly that maple syrup goes with just about anything, but my favorite item on the menu was the tarte au sucre. Think of a pecan pie without the pecans. It was as if the cook said, “Let’s get rid of the only thing in this pie that could be classified as nutritious.”

Sugaring Off, a painting by Grandma Moses (1943)

Sugaring Off, a painting by Grandma Moses (1943)

 

The best part of the day? The tire d’érable or “sugar on snow.” The sap is boiled to a higher temperature, past the point of syrup, until it becomes thick like taffy. While it’s still nearly boiling, it’s poured onto the “snow” (really ice shavings) in delightful little rows.

Sugar Shack

Tire d’érable or “sugar on snow”

Using a popsicle stick, you roll one row over and over until it’s a little sticky ball. Then you lick it like a lollipop. Piece of advice from personal experience: Don’t bite it unless you don’t mind losing a filling.

 

Rolling up the tire d'érable

 

Despite my extensive taste testing, I’m no connoisseur, but I came away from my sugar shack experience with an appreciation for the real syrupy deal. It puts the stuff in the grocery store that comes in the bottle shaped like a certain aunt to shame.

Surprise — maple syrup production isn’t limited to Quebec or Vermont. Jocelyn over at Projects & Promises, who has some terrific sugaring off photos, lives in Ohio. Just look at her bounty! 

 

Before the bud swells, before the grass springs, before the plough is started, comes the sugar harvest.  It is sequel of the bitter frost; a sap run is the sweet goodbye of winter.

~ John Burroughs (1837 – 1921)

 

What are some of your rites of spring? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Hope

 

A really bad photo of Dr. Jane and me.

A really bad photo of Dr. Jane and me.

Dr. Jane Goodall and I met in 2008 at a lecture in Manhattan. I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. I’m a fan of Dr. Jane for many reasons – her determination and courage, chief among them.

In 1960,  26-year-old Jane Goodall was hiking to her vantage point on a peak in Tanzania. She had been sent to this remote area known as Gombe by archaeologist Louis Leakey to study a group of wild chimpanzees. Jane had been there for weeks, long enough to recognize some of the chimpanzees, but they hadn’t allowed her to get very close. Then she spotted the chimp she’d named David Greybeard. During the lecture, she told this story:

 

“This was a wonderful situation when right in the early days, I was following David Greybeard. And I thought I’d lost dr. jane goodall and baby chimphim in a tangle of undergrowth. I found him sitting as though he was waiting, maybe he was. He was on his own. And I picked up this red nut and held it out on my palm. He turned his face away. So, I held my palm closer, and then he turned; he looked directly into my eyes. He reached out. He took it, but he didn’t want it. He dropped it. But at the same time, he very gently squeezed my fingers, which is how a chimp reassures. So, there was this communication. He understood that I was acting in good faith. He didn’t want [the nut], but he wanted to reassure me that he understood. So, we understood each other without the use of words.”

 

Jane is now on the road 300 days of the year talking about the plight of the chimpanzees (only about 150,000 are left in the wild, compared to about 2 million in 1900), animal welfare and environmental conservation — topics that could certainly lead one to despair. Yet her unwavering optimism is contagious, and another one of the reasons I admire her.  “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future.,” she says.

Another woman I know who has an incredible reservoir of hope is Joy Southard. Joy has a big job. She travels around Texas to tell kids of all ages that they matter and that they have the power within them to follow their own path. And (here’s the best part) she uses rescue dogs to do it.

Joy is the director of Healing Species of Texas, a compassion education program taught with the assistance of rescue dogs.  These dogs have stories of abuse and neglect and are the living example to children of how to approach life issues with courage, empathy, integrity and self worth. Joy doesn’t shy away from the dogs’ sad stories. By honestly telling what happened to the dogs, the kids can find understanding, respect and, most of all, hope. The dogs made it through, and they can, too.

One of the school programs Joy organizes is called Dogs of Character. It’s an assembly presentation of three dogs and parallels their stories to a child’s experience. “We compare the feelings of a new dog at the dog park to that of a new kid on the playground.  We bring a dog who has the physical signs of abuse, perhaps he has lost his leg due to cruelty, for our older kids to address bullying.  We bring dogs who have amazing loyalty to each other yet are characteristically very different to teach diversity and tolerance,” Joy says.

 

 

Joy has many great stories from her work so I asked her to share one.

“One of my favorite stories was a class of kids in a juvenile detention center.  We teach the quote by Albert Schweitzer, ‘Until man extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, he himself will not find peace.’  In this lesson a young boy went up to our board and drew a stick figure with a sad face inside a circle.  He explained that he is putting this boy, who he had bullied for most of the year, in his “circle of compassion.”  His sad face indicated his tears.  He told us he was going to apologize to this boy and keep him safe from others who would bully him. That was pretty meaningful to us because we later learned how our student kept his word and was ridiculed for sticking up for the kid who was a target.

“We teach that strength comes from advocacy.  When our students finish Healing Species they know they have the tools to practice being important to someone or something.  Due to this boy’s felony charges that got him into juvenile detention, he was not given many chances to lead anything at school when he returned.  We work very hard to give these kids chances to feel needed.  They are definitely needed to help us change how animals are treated!  They are also needed to change how we treat each other.  One doesn’t have to be crowned homecoming king or elected student class president to change the world for the better.”

Highlighting the work of Dr. Jane Goodall and Joy is the perfect way to close out Women’s History Month. I think these women embody many of the same traits as the others  featured this month, most importantly hope and compassion.  Changing your piece of the world requires hope and without it, compassion is hard to come by.

What are some things you’re hopeful about these days? 

 

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April 3 is Dr. Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday. Happy Birthday, Jane! 

On Wednesday, my blog was Freshly Pressed! I was overwhelmed (in a good way) by the positive response to the post. A warm welcome to all new followers! 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One with the Shirtwaist

Among the people walking through Washington Square Park in Manhattan on March 25, 1911, was a reporter for the United Press news agency. William Gunn Shepherd followed the sound of women screaming, volunteer firemen sloshing buckets of water and windows shattering. As he reached the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, he saw what the commotion was about – a mushroom of smoke billowed into the sky and fire raged from the Asch Building.

March 25 was a Saturday. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, it was the shortest day of the workweek — 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., with a 45-minute break for lunch. Five hundred workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, took the freight elevators to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, the top three floors of the building.  They were part of the largest blouse making operation in New York, shipping more than 2,000 garments per day. Owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris, immigrants coming from abject poverty themselves, were finally living the good life; receipts at Triangle totaled one million dollars a year (in today’s dollars).

There were 240 sewing machines installed on each side of eight long tables spanning the length of the room. The most skilled job was that of a draper, who turned the designer’s vision into the actual garment. Esther Harris was a draper and one of the highest paid workers at Triangle, making $22 per week. Not far behind on the pay scale were the cutters whose job it was to place the patterns on the fabric with maximum efficiency. Perhaps it was one of those cutters, closest to the scrap bins filled with tissue paper patterns and fabric, who tossed a lit cigarette in her rush to head home. It was 4:42 p.m., and the end of a long work week.

The fire quickly grew from the scrap bin and licked at the hanging patterns. As the patterns dropped onto the tables, they ignited the fabric that had been left for Monday morning. The 180 women who worked on the eighth floor were already lined up at the Greene Street elevators, where they had to wait at wooden partitions to be inspected for theft. Panic rippled through the women as they noticed the smoke and flames beginning in the corner of the room. There was a firestorm effect where small pieces of burning fabric flew in tornado-like funnels around the room, catching everything in their path on fire. Some of the women rushed the partition and shouted. Some sprinted to the Washington Place exit. Some ran to the fire escape, and some tried to put the fire out with water pails. But the flames just got stronger.

There were dozens of little details that piled on top of each other and turned a terrible situation into a catastrophe. Dinah Lipschitz, a manager on the eighth floor, called the tenth floor to alert them to the fire. But then the switchboard operator dropped the call before she could connect them to the ninth floor. The doors to the stairwell opened inward instead of outward. The crush of people prevented them from opening the doors.  Ida Cohen was one of those women. “All the girls were falling on me and they squeezed me to the door.” Finally Louis Brown was able to push the women away from the door, but it was locked. He rushed to find a key.

As the eighth floor darkened with smoke and the heat rose, manager Samuel Bernstein got the fire hose. It was supposed to be connected to a large tank on the roof, but it wasn’t. He lost three to four minutes of precious time while he tried to get water to come out. Only five to six minutes after coming to life, the fire had consumed most of the eighth floor – more than 9,000 sq. ft.

For the women who had run to the fire escape, the route down was terrifying. The landings and sloping stairs were wide enough for only one woman at a time. The fire escape ended over a basement skylight in an airshaft enclosed on all sides by the three buildings that occupied the city block. Realizing this, one woman opened the sixth floor shutters and broke through the window. Women followed her lead and ran to the stairwell on that floor only to find the doors locked. But they were the lucky ones. They were later rescued by a police officer who heard them pounding on the door. The fire escape soon collapsed taking dozens of women with it.

Outside, a crowd had gathered on Greene Street. Flames rising from the eighth floor windows were being sucked into those on the ninth floor and from there they lapped at the top floor. As the first horse-drawn fire carriages arrived, women appeared in the windows of the eighth and ninth floors, craning for fresh air and for a ladder that would never come.  The fire captain ordered the longest ladders drawn up to the building, but fully extended, they reached only the sixth floor as did the stream of water from fire hoses. A team of firefighters entered the building and reported that the treads of the stairwell were cracking in the heat. The smoke was so intense they couldn’t stand to face it. They lay on their bellies  and opened the hoses.

Then the bystanders saw something large and dark fall from one of the windows. “He’s [owner Max Blanck] trying to save his best cloth,” said a voice in the crowd. When the next bundle began to fall, they realized it was a human being.  “I learned a new sound,” reporter William Gunn Shepherd would write later, “a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”

In only eighteen minutes, the three top floors of the Asch Building were engulfed and 146 (nearly all) women, average age 20, perished.  As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize these mostly anonymous women in some way. Their deaths brought forth great change — new legislation for safer working conditions, such as sprinkler systems, unlocked doors during business hours, clear pathways to clearly marked stairwells, and fire escapes that exit to the street — a direct result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

A segment from CBS Sunday Morning with photos of some of the women and details of the sweeping workplace reform that occurred as result of the fire.

Have a great weekend, everyone!