Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2022

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December 20th, 2022
Dyker Heights

or

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing to Wretched Excess

I got an email from my friend Abby in the Bronx. She told me she was going to take a subway ride down into Brooklyn to stroll through Dyker Heights. and invited me along. That is a neighborhood which had developed over the years the custom of bedecking its homes with elaborate Christmas decorations to the extent that it had developed a reputation city-wide as a minor tourist attraction. Coincidentally, only a couple of days earlier, I had heard a human interest story on WNYC, New York's Public Radio station, on that very topic. So I said, "Sure, sounds like fun."

The excursion reminded me of a round I heard once, that went

Four long hours of driving
For one short dip in the ocean
Miserere Nobis

An hour's drive to meet Abby at her home, followed by an hour and a half subway ride down into Brooklyn, including one change of trains, followed by about 20 minutes' walk to get to Dyker Heights. We walked around for about 45 minutes, and then reversed the route. I had left that house at 2:30 in the afternoon, and got back home at 10:30 at night.

Still, I had a good time. I enjoy Abby's company, and I hadn't done a long subway journey since I moved out of my parents' home in 1969. The subways had progressed from using tokens (15 cents at the time) for entry, to Metro Cards, and finally to accepting credit cards (for $2.75) right at the turnstyles. Abby's apartment is near Van Cortland Park, right at the very northern end of the #1 line, which is elevated rather than running underground at that point. I used to take that train to get to my summer job when I was in high school, working as a sales clerk in Brown's Hobby Center, right across the street from the Park. It was the perfect job for me, as I was a big model airplane enthusiast at the time, and took a significant portion of my wages in balsa wood, glue, and other supplies at cost. We would also fly our planes in the Park. A healty dose of nostalgia for me.

Dyker Heights encompasses about 8 square blocks. It is a relatively wealthy neighborhood, largely Italian, consisting primarily of single- and two-family homes with yards, driveways, and garages, all rare luxuries in New York City. The custom of elaborate Christmas decoration is almost universal within the heart of the neighborhood, with very few houses remaining unadorned. According to Wikipedia, most of the decorations are erected by professional companies, rather than by the homeowners themselves. If you listen real hard, you can hear the whir of their electric meters spinning somewhere around 10,000 RPM.

I had opted for the subway because I was concerned I would not be able to find a parking place if we had driven. As it turned out, that would not have been a concern. There were plenty of spaces. (Although the drive would probably have taken no less time than the subway.) The sidewalks were filled with gawkers like us, and the streets with cars idling along at 5 MPH, all validating Dyker Heights' rep as a tourist attraction. We were somewhat overwhelmed by the spectacle as we entered the neighborhood. The shock quickly subsided once we were in the midst of it, but the entertainment value did not. It was chilly, but we were sufficiently bundled up so as not be be uncomfortable.

But a half hour into our ramblings, Abby began to experience a different sort of discomfort. We quickly realized that this might be a problem, as this being a strictly residential neighborhood, there were no public facilities to be had. We headed back towards the subway station in search of a more commercial neighborhood, where we might find a restaurant or or church or some other establishment with a rest room. Things were getting desparate when we came upon some establishment that was open, although we weren't sure exactly what it was. We went in to find an empty lobby with a door to another room. That turned out to be a banquet hall with about 50 people seated at a long table eating. We approached someone who looked official and explained our plight. He said, "Yes, but it will cost you $100." We were both taken aback until we spotted the twinkle in his eye. With an answering twinkle, I replied , "Would you settle for $20?" We all had a good laugh, and he pointed the way.We thanked him profusely. We then walked another 10 minutes (which would have been too late for Abby) and found an Italian restaurant a lot fancier than is my wont, had a lovely dinner and then headed back for the subway, and the long journey home. .

I present the photos below in no particular order, and without commentary. I can't say that any one of them stood out from all the rest (except, perhps Santa on the beach chair), but the overall effect was most pleasing.

Click on any photo for a full-page image..

 

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December 1st, 2022
A Tree Falls in Boonton...Again!

The reason I say "again" is that back in 2016 another tree had fallen, and done some superficial damage to my front steps and deck. I reported that in my blog post of November 6, 2016. As happened back then, I was working in my home office late in the afternoon when I heard the thunderous report of a tree falling somewhere near me.  It was dark out, so I figured I'd investigate the next morning.  The house didn’t shake, so I figured the tree must have missed it.  Next morning required no investigation, as I could see it right outside my kitchen window when I went to make breakfast.  A major limb around a foot in diameter had broken off and landed smack on my backup generator, situated right outside that window.  The photos tell the story.  I took them for the insurance company.

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Click any photo for a full-screen image.

Those of you familiar with me or my Blog will know that my house is situated in a flood plain. My back yard borders on the Rockaway River, except, as I like to say, when my front yard borders on the Rockaway River. I solved that problem back in 1981 after the first and only time the house got flooded by raising the house, and turning what used to be a crawl space into a full-height under-house garage. So now these occasional periods of high water are an inconvenience, rather than a disaster.

The possibility of high water did pose a real problem when I decided to install a backup generator. Where could I put it to be safe from flood damage? My solution was to design and build a steel tower upon which to mount the generator that would situate it at the same height of the deck outside my kitchen door. You can see the story of that project in my Blog post of June 1, 2012.

When the the limb fell, it landed on the generator, pushing it off the tower and onto my back deck, and broke the railing off the deck. It coulda been a lot worse.  The generator itself is still fully functional, and only the housing is smashed up.  If the tree had knocked it to the ground instead onto the deck, it undoubtedly would have ripped off the electrical connections and the propane hose that powers the generator.  (Photo #8 shows those two connections still intact.  I had specified flexible connections long enough to roll the generator onto the deck for service with all utilities still attached.)  Electrical sparks and spurting propane could have caused a lovely explosion.  I'm proud to say that the tower itself survived the blow without so much as a scratch. I designed it well.

A tree guy came by the following day to see what would be required to remove the fallen limb. The limb had broken off a tree on the adjacent property, which is protected wetland, and owned by the town. The tree guy told me that the tree from which it fell is an ash, badly infected by emerald ash borers. It, and two other big ash trees on the property are severly weakened, and all three trees might pose a danger to the house. At his advice, I called up the town, and asked that those trees be taken down safely. They told me it would be taken care of. Boonton Township has always been good to me.

The damage is covered under my home insurance.  I only hope replacement parts for the damaged housing will still be available.

 

November 30, 2022
Ah, Those Were the Days!


I was cleaning out some files in the bottom drawers of my filing cabinet, when I encountered the item above. It's a gig announcement, I'm guessing from sometime in 1989 or 1990 (after the expiration dates of all the offers) in the prehistoric era before I, or just about anybody I knew owned a computer. It got me to thinking about how things have changed since then. First of all, you'll notice it's typed and photocopied; not computer-printed. That old Courier font. It was sent out by good old US Post. A first class stamp was 25 cents back then, so one had to limit the number of copies mailed out so as not to make the announcement cost more than one would make at the gig. No mass email blasts back then. Consequently, the one flier covered 3 months' worth of gigs to save on postage. Three of the five venues listed in the mailing are no more. The format parodied that of those perforated discount fliers from the local supermarkets that used to flood my mailbox. I don't know about you, but I'm not getting any of those these days. And I used to be a lot more creative with my gig mailings back then. A bit silly perhaps, but I kinda like it. It gave me a grin, so maybe it'll give you a grin too.

Enjoy.

October 28, 2022
Tomas' Pumpkins - 2022

Halloween for me has become the time to take my annual a ride out to Sussex County to view the latest works of Master Gourd Artist, Tomas Gonzales. Since he started in 1990, Tomas has treated his local community and more distant aficionados, fans, and other cognoscenti to a display of museum-quality artwork with a 2-week shelf life. His chosen medium is pumpkins, and the relationship between your everyday jack-o'-lantern and his works is akin to that of your 5-year old granddaughter's finger-paintings to the Mona Lisa. Tomas carefully shaves the rind of the pumpkin to graduated thicknesses, resulting in delicate shading when illuminated by the candle inside, thereby producing delicate portraits of figures real and imaginary, living and historical.

I was especially looking forward to this year's crop, because my friend Jenny wanted to come down from Vermont to see them with me. The setting in which they are displayed enhances the artwork itself. He lives in a house on a small dead-end road, beside a stream. The road crosses the stream on a little one-lane bridge, and the masonry rail posts along the bridge serve as plinths upon which the pumpkins are displayed. This year the moon was just about full on the night we went, bathing the bridge and the stream and the pumpkins in a magical radiance.

I have documented Tomas' previous displays in 2017, 2019, and 2020 with photographs of mixed quality. I have a good basic SLR camera, but I'm not well schooled in its operation in anything but automatic mode. Photographing in the low light conditions is a tricky process, and I really don't know how to use the manual settings to achieve the effect I'm looking for. So this year, I abandoned the idea of taking photos, and left the camera at home. But once there, I couldn't resist just snapping a few shots with my phone. I was greatly annoyed at how good those photos turned out.

Click any photo for a full-screen view

1. Demonized Diamond Eyes

2. Impish Eyes

3. Bermejo's Diablo

4. Genie of the Lamp
(For the view from all angles, click here.)

5. Wolf-Eyed Owl looking left
(To watch the "wolf eyes" move, click here.)

6. Wolf-Eyed Owl looking right
(To watch the "wolf eyes" move, click here.)

7. Cihuateteo

8. See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Smell No Evil

9. La Vague

10. Zig-Zag

11. Willy The Silent

12. Shrouded Moon

 

Details on some of the photos:

1. Demonized Diamond Eyes: This is about as close to a standard Jack-o'-lantern Tomas does.

2. Impish Eyes: According to Tomas, "Pretoogjes (aka "Impish Eyes" due to lack of an English equivalent) untranslatable Dutch word alluding to an ineffable spark of mischief which one might catch a glint of in the windows of the soul.

3. Bermejo's Diablo: Bartolome Bermejo was a Spanish artist, whose most famous work was "The Triumph of St. Michael", whose triumph depicted was over the Devil. This pumpkin depicts that Devil.

4. Genie of the Lamp: The carving on this work extends more than halfway around the pumpkin, and can't be viewed in a single photograph. So I took a short video while walking around the pumpkin to cover the full work. You can see the full extent of the work by clicking here.

5. & 6. Wolf-Eyed Owl: There is a technique that Tomas uses he calls "Wolf-Eyes". In these pumpkins he cuts out the eye holes in the traditional manner, but then creates the pupils of the eyes by making cutouts in the back face of the pumpkin. Those appear black when seen through the eye holes in the front on a dark night. And because of the parallax, they appear to move left or right as the viewer moves his/her vantage point, making the eyes seem to follow the viewer. You can see that effect by clicking here. (By the way, I should insert a small ornithological correction here. Owls' eyes are fixed in their sockets, and cannot be rotated. In order to change their view, they must rotate their heads, and some of them can rotate a full 180°.)

7. Cihuateteo: Cihuateteo, according to Tomas, is an Aztec goddess of women, and particularly women who died in childbirth, who were then accorded the same social status as a warrior who had died in battle.

9. La Vague: (The Wave) This is Tomas' rendering of a 1907 painting by Carlos Schwabe

11. Willy The Silent: William the First, founder of the Dutch Republic

12. Shrouded Moon: I had mentioned the full moon over the scene that night lent an air of magic to the over the display. This photo is a weak attempt to depict that atmosphere. There were wispy clouds that sometimes passed before the moon, giving it a true Halloween feel. The little bright bit at the bottom of this image, as well as some of the others, is a campfire that Tomas had built in his back yard, where he and other visitors could gather and warm themselves and chat over a cup of mulled cider.

August 6, 2022
Perseids Meteor Shower

Next Friday, August 12th will be the peak of this year's Perseids Meteor Shower. This annual period of increased "shooting star" activity has long held a soft spot in my heart, thanks to a series of events that happened to me about 50 years ago.

I have a brother, Saul, about six years younger than me. Throughout most of my childhood, the two of us did not get along, and I hold myself largely responsible for that state of affairs. I suppose I could fall back on what a shrink might diagnose as a resentment against his replacing me in our parents' affection after six years of being an only child. We never had any real common interests that might have resulted in some sort of bonding. But whatever the reason, I did not treat him lovingly so long as we both lived under the same roof. After I moved out on my own at age 24, the issue sort of became moot, since we no longer encountered each other on a daily basis, and the hostilities between us dwindled to a simmer.

Until one day in the early 70s in the summer between his junior and senior years (I think) of college. I had lived at home during my college years, attending the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. (I grew up in New York City.) But Saul went away to MIT. Rather than coming home for the summer that year, he, along with 2 or 3 friends rented a farmhouse in central Massachusetts for the summer. Things had healed between us to some extent, but I was rather surprised to receive from him an invitation to come up and visit the farmhouse over the weekend of the Perseids. We would hang out, have a cookout, play frisbee, get high, and when it got dark we'd go outside and count meteors.

I did not fully realize it at the time, but it was the rapprochement, the breaking of the dam of resentment in our relationship. He had morphed from being this pain-in-the-ass kid with whom I was forced to share a bedroom (He would put it the other way around.), to being a fully-formed adult with whom was fun to hang out. And as it turned out, we did have some common interests in music and frisbee and smoking grass, and other stuff. It was a magical weekend and a magical day, capped off by an incident that was almost truly magic.

After we tired of counting shooting stars, we and his friends retired to his bedroom to play a game of Blacklight Parcheesi. Blacklight Parcheesi is exactly the same as regular Parcheesi, except you paint the board and the pieces with phosphorescent paint, get stoned, shut off the room lights, and illuminate the game with an ultraviolet lamp.

Now this farmhouse was also populated by a trio of black, long-haired kittens about 6 or 8 months old. The kittens liked to play Blacklight Parcheesi too. But they didn't understand the rules, and kept messing up the board. So we would bundle them out of the room, and shut the door. The old house had plenty of gaps and orifices and broken screens where a cat could get in and out. Which they did. They would make their way outside, and up onto the roof of a shed or garage or something outside Saul's bedroom window, climb up to the screen, and demand to be let inside with plaintive cries of, "Mew! Mew! Mew!" When we turned our heads to the sound, all we could see in the blackness beyond the screen were the shining teeth and eyes of three black kittens, illuminated by the UV lamp. Three real live honest-to-God Cheshire cats!

So we'd open the screen, scoop them up, and toss them out the bedroom door again. And in 10 or 15 minutes, they'd be back outside the screen again, demanding entry. It was a game they liked better than blacklight Parcheesi.

It was indeed a magical weekend, and a watershed experience in the relationship between Saul and me. And ever since then, I've had the Perseids Meteor Shower on August 12th marked in my calendar as an ongoing bookmark. Saul still lives in Massachusetts We're not exactly close, but we stay in touch, calling each other every now and then to relate things that are happening to us, or just to chew the fat. And every now and then, there will be an occasional visit in one direction or another. He comes to see me perform sometimes when I'm playing in the area. I called him last week to see if he might have me come up for a visit on the night of the Perseids. But he and his girlfriend will be running a bridge tournament starting on the following Saturday, and won't be able to host me.

Well, maybe next year. Meanwhile I'll find someone else to go with, or go out and watch 'em myself.

May 26, 2022
Embarrassment of Riches

Click on images for a full screen view.


As delivered


As stacked

As some of you may know, I heat my home with wood. (See my May 26, 2020 Blog entry, Heating With Wood) Last winter's supply came largely from various downed trees in the neighborhood, which my friend Larry Flanigan had helped me collect and transport in his pickup to my garage, where I split it by hand. (You can see the remains of the split wood behind the new stuff in the 2nd photo.) It's a task I don't mind doing. It's good exercise, and there is something in the job that gives the anal-retentive portion of my mind a mindless sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as I watch the ordered stacks of split wood grow. It's progress in the engineer's ongoing battle against ever-increasing entropy.

Well, I still had a cord and a half left over, but it wouldn't carry me through the next winter. But Larry told me about a landscaper who was looking for someone to take some wood off his hands. I contacted him, and arranged for a delivery. Yesterday that delivery arrived in an enormous industrial-sized dump truck, and it was more than I had bargained for. About 2-1/2 or 3 cords, sawn to length, but unsplit as I had specified, in an enormous pile on my driveway. Some of those rounds were 80 to 100 pounds; more than I could handle. So I called my friend Pablo, who is younger and stronger than me. He came over with his son (younger still and just as strong), and helped me stack them in my garage practically up to the ceiling. Oh, goody! Now I'll have the fun (?) of splitting them, and I think I'll be set for firewood all the way through the winter of 2023-24. And all for $200, plus another $60 to Pablo for his services. Not a bad bargain.

April 8, 2022
New York Botanical Garden

It has been a long, dreary (but not all that cold) winter. A "winter" that's dragged on for over two years in the form of COVID-19. With the onset of April, and the apparent retreat (Knock wood!) of COVID, I had the hankering to get out and do something springlike. Looking in my calendar, I saw that The Folk Project was also emerging from COVID hibernation on Friday, April 8th with a concert by folk legend, Tom Paxton. So I called up my sweetheart Jenny in Vermont, and said, "C'mon down, and let's celebrate spring." The New York Botanical Garden is always a treat to visit, and the onset of spring is the perfect time. We looked in our calendars, and at the weather map, and the choices suddenly narrowed. While the weekend before had been sunny in the high 60s, the whole preceding week looked to be rainy, with the possible exception of the concert day itself. And as it turned out, Jenny had a rehearsal in Amherst, MA at 11:00 AM Saturday. So we resolved to squeeze a whole weekend into one day.

Click the photo below for the Travelogue.


Click photo to enter Travelogue

 

March 22, 2022
Motorcycle (1)

Here it is, Spring already, and I have not written a Blog entry yet this year. Well, be fair. We are two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I haven't been doing very much worth reporting. So I thought maybe I'd tell a story or two from my past. For 25 years I rode motorcycles. Anyone who rode a bike for that long will have stories to tell. If he's still alive to tell them. This will be the first of several that will appear in this Blog from time to time.

 


Not my bike, but the same model

For most of those 25 years, I rode a 900cc 1976 BMW R90s, which I bought sometime around 1980. (Prior to that I had a Suzuki 400cc motocross and a Yamaha 350cc street bike.) The Bimmer was without doubt a classy-looking bike. That's why I chose it. I never got involved in "biker" society. Never joined any clubs or went on any long journeys with others. It was strictly transportation, a personal choice, and a way of using a minimum of space and natural resources when I didn't need to be carrying anything more than myself and what I could fit in my saddle bags, while having a little fun in the process.

At least that's what I told myself. In reality, the gas savings with the bike were pretty minimal at best. I was getting around 28 - 30 MPG with my car, while the bike only got 34 - 36, and required premium octane. Nonetheless, I stuck to my resolve of taking the bike instead of the car whenever I could, even going so far as to ride throughout the winter. I replaced that snazzy-looking bullet fairing with a larger one that better protected me from the wind. I installed electrically heated handgrips and "Hippo-Hands", a pair of leather shrouds that snapped over the handlebars and covered my forearms up to the elbow. I wore down-insulated parka and snow pants when it got cold. I wouldn't say I was warm and toasty when it was 10° out, but it was quite bearable. Yeah, it was pretty irrational, but most people who ride bikes have a stupid-center somewhere in their brains.

This particular motorcycle story involves a trip I took to visit my friend Danny Ruvin in Bala Cynwyd, PA, just west of Philly one summer day. That's about a 100 mile journey for me, mostly on interstates. But the last leg of the trip took me along Roosevelt Boulevard (US Route 1). Roosevelt Boulevard is a major urban thoroughfare through a mostly residential and shopping area of Philadelphia. There are three main travel lanes in each direction with a grassy median between them, and two service lanes each direction, also separated from the main travel lanes by medians. There are cross streets and traffic lights as well, and traffic will routinely be zipping along at 45 - 50 MPH if there's no congestion.

Needless to say an experienced biker will be doubly on the alert in all directions in such a situation. So my hair trigger danger-alert went off when my eyes caught a flurry of movement in my rear view mirrors. At first it was not particularly clear what was going on. There were headlights behind me (It was daytime.) swerving left and right amidst the traffic, and getting closer. And then I heard the noise. It resolved itself to be a pack of motorcycle crazies, traveling a good 10 to 15 MPH faster than the rest of the traffic changing lanes, passing cars between lanes, and coming up fast. Their bikes were souped-up high-revving models with minimal or no mufflers, and these guys were on a tear!

What to do? They would be upon me in seconds, and there was no way to avoid them. I resolved to do absolutely nothing, driving absolutely straight with no variation in speed, so as to be as predictable an obstacle as possible. And then they were on me and I was amongst them. And for what seemed like 5 minutes, but was probably more like one, I was just one more blob for them to maneuver around. And then they were past me and gone, and peace again reigned, and my heart slowed to its normal pace.

And I understood! I didn't condone, but I understood. For those brief few seconds it was all flashing movement and noise and split-second reactions and adrenaline. It was like finding myself on a black diamond ski slope that was beyond my abilities to negotiate, and all I could do was react instinctively to survive. And it was exciting! I liked it! I wanted more!

And then it was over.

I now knew why people do things like that. Particularly youngsters who are immortal in their own minds. I would never knowingly put myself in that situation. My stupid-center isn't that big. But I felt the rush, and can understand the seduction of that rush.

I wonder how many of those guys lived to see their 70th birthdays.

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