Thursday, March 24, 2016

Spring Fling...or Bahamian Bust?

This blog post is not about me. I am not in the Bahamas. It is mostly about Pope and Albert, some tomato seedlings, and the way relationship can stretch and bend in certain circumstances, depending on the personalities.
First, let me just admit that I am a classic boat widow--that is, a spouse frequently left behind when a partner runs off to a spiritual soulmate of the floating variety.
Yes, it's true. Two weeks ago Pope left me a note on the kitchen table: "Went to see my mistress."  (That really is his handwriting. I am NOT making this up.) Fortunately, I know how to interpret his literary meanderings. He is not racing to burrow his nose into the breasts of a curvaceous blonde; no, he is racing to wrap his loving arms around the mast of a cold, hard hunk of fiberglass. He spent a lot of time with his mistress this winter. He worried about her endlessly, crying out her name in his sleep.
Echo II being slung back into the water after a long winter of repairs
The important point here is, Pope loves sailboats and sailing. He is currently in the sunny Bahamas for a Spring fling, crewing on someone else's boat. I, on the other hand, am enjoying nights out with the girls, wine parties, gym classes, yoga teacher training, Cajun music jams. Lonely widow?? Nah! So which of us is having the more delightful experience? Judge for yourself...
Amber joins other volunteer teachers in training workshop at Yoga in Daily Life USA, Alexandria, Virginia, March 2016
Remember our month in early 2014, holed up at the Rubis gas station dock in Nassau while our auxiliary engine was removed, refurbished, and reinstalled by Albert the diesel magician? Of course you do! Admit it--it was your favorite story; or maybe the only story that kept you from nodding off while slogging through my tiresome blog about misadventures in the Bahamas.
Bidding farewell to Echo II's auxiliary propulsion unit, January 2014; bye bye, see you in a month!
Albert the diesel magician in his shop, ordering essential parts from the US for Echo II, January 2014
Well, what goes around comes around! Is that the appropriate phrase here? Or is it DEJA VU??! As I write this, Pope is holed up at the Rubis gas station dock in Nassau, on a broke-down boat, while Albert the diesel magician is being solicited (skids greased with some Jameson whiskey, most likely) to take a gander at its internal mechanics. Will Pope and his skipper see other islands? Will they snorkel and swim, or even sail? TBD. Pope's latest email: "I have no idea how long we will be stuck here at the good ole Rubis station. Lots of problems."
Not a day older: Albert the diesel magician, still running his shop of miracles (and illusions) in Nassau, March 2016
Divine justice for running off to the islands without me? Poor planning, or poor maintenance? Or is Pope so attached to that old wooden fuel dock with its charter fishing boats and laid-back vibe that it serves as auxiliary soulmate? We did have a good time there in 2014; the gas station manager at the time, Daniel, shared his breakfast, joked with us, let us use the internet, and instructed his staff to unlock the toilet for us at all hours, on request.
Street view of our Nassau home away from home, January 2014
The infamous--and increasingly familiar--dock, January 2014; Echo II is the (only) mast on the left
Thus our respective activities in the Spring of 2016 continue to unfold. Now, about those tomato seedlings: while Pope shoots the breeze with Bahamian gas jockeys and Albert's assistants, day after day, with the potential for becoming week after week, he moans that his newly planted tomato, pepper, basil, and parsley seeds in the little brown pots in our front window could die without their "parent" to nurture and nourish them. His lament: "They need love. Without me they are screwed." Well, I can only do my best. Every day I water them, gaze fondly at them, puzzle over how to keep them alive, and even sing Cajun songs to them. As far as I can tell, they are not yet screwed.
As you have probably figured out by now, Pope and I have a strange yet wonderful relationship, able to endure interesting twists and turns that could never even be conceived of by normal people.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

In Search of a Steinway

Last weekend, I stood before an audience to introduce the third of four concerts by Lana Genc, a classical pianist visiting from Croatia for her first US performance tour. I had organized two of the concerts--publicity and all--at the Arts Club of Washington and An die Musik in Baltimore.
Lana played beautifully, coaxing melodic harmonies of Chopin and Bach from aging ivories, garnering compliments and swelling my heart with devotion and pride. She captivated audiences not only with music but also with smile, presence, grace and confidence.
(Photo by Chris Farmer)
I truly enjoyed supporting her efforts to make a splash on the US music scene. Together, we put her local performances on the map--on calendars, on flyers, on the internet, and into the consciousness of music fans. We attracted decent crowds in Washington, Baltimore, and Alexandria, Virginia.

Quite an accomplishment, given that, as of last November, the classical concert world was new to me--and Steinways are not easy to find. The realm of music, however, was old hat. I had been singing and strumming since 5 years old, when I first picked out "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on a toy piano. Music was in my blood! Well, why not; my mother played accordion and organ and taught me to waltz in our living room.
Even classical composers were not complete strangers. I played violin in school orchestras, rising to the position of First Violin, and quitting only when public funding ended. (Marching band continued, of course.) Switching to organ--because there was one in our home--I discovered that my left and right hands were uncoordinated. Besides, I never could wrap my brain around that pesky treble clef--just where were those notes on the keyboard, anyway?
Fortunately, my uncle came to the rescue with a cheap guitar. I spent many enjoyable hours teaching myself to play scales and strum along with Peter, Paul and Mary. I babysat every Saturday to buy a decent $80 guitar, in 1973. I still have it.

In college, I skipped classes to practice "Stairway to Heaven" and "Time in a Bottle" with good-lookin' frat boys boasting names like Fast Eddie. I signed up for classical guitar class, which I barely passed because the final exam required playing in front of a crowd, and in those days I was way too shy.

By the time I got a full-time job, I had a good grounding in musical instruments. Like many a career professional, however, I gave up music for a long, long time. It wasn't until retirement that I picked up the old guitar and dug my harmonicas out of storage. Before long, I was singing in Cajun jams and getting coached in Piedmont-style blues.
When Lana--a fellow member of my international yoga organization, Yoga in Daily Life--contacted us about visiting our yoga center in Alexandria, I was ready to launch another musical adventure. And what an adventure it was! I learned about classical compositions and quality of pianos, attended a lovely embassy concert and reception, and got up close and personal with an accomplished professional. (Look at those right fingers flying.)
She never stopped practicing, nimble and sure: three hours a day on borrowed pianos, other times in her head, and in the car on the way to Baltimore.
My appreciation for classical composers and accomplished pianists grew enormously when I sat up close during a house concert, a few feet behind the keys. She referred to the historic piano, inherited from ancestors, as an "old gentleman" that required gentle nurturing--yet the old gentleman survived--and perhaps even grew stronger?--as she pounded out the strong riffs and chords. When Lana plays, she takes a deep breath and pours her soul into the music. At that distance, the power and glory of Rachmaninoff came through loud and clear!
Above all, I made a dear friend--a talented, lovely and loving woman who not only plays piano but practices yoga and meditation, who graced us with her presence on her journey to a higher world of consciousness, music and potential stardom.
(Photo by Chris Farmer)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Classical Piano, Anyone?

Yes, it's true, I'm branching out. My latest volunteer project has been to arrange classical piano recitals for an acquaintance from Croatia. Lana Genc is a concert pianist visiting the United States this February to perform and attempt to gain exposure in the U.S. music scene. I have arranged two public concerts, Friday, February 26 in DC and Sunday, February 28 in Baltimore. Please attend and support Lana and my fledgling efforts as a musician's agent! Maybe someday I can get a paying gig!

She will also play concerts in New York City on Feb 17 and March 5-6, so let me know if you want those schedules--send me a note at aljones101 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Weather Gods Roll the Dice

The car is buried. The front steps are stacked with a billion snowflakes. We are stocked up with food and drink and ready to party, alone in our, perhaps I mean womb. My thoughts drift to the courageous men and women who predicted all this. Until a few hours ago, a few doubts remained whether the blizzard would match expectations.

Being a TV weatherman, meteorologist, or both, must be among the most celebrated--and vilified--occupations in America. Who do we blame when scientists miscalculate and the forecast begins to look just a little bit shaky?

"Time to clear the front steps. I guess they had the prediction right for once," my partner Pope exclaimed as he glanced out the window at 4:27 pm. That's the kind of attitude that gets weather announcers in trouble!

In Washington, doubts or not, we prepared for the worst. Earlier today, as I traversed the heavily congested aisles of Safeway, I was bemused by the fact that certain shelves were emptier than others. Snack foods and hot dogs--well, that's to be expected. Soft drinks--wiped out. (Too bad, from a nutritional standpoint.) Pet food--good to know people are watching out for their four-footed friends.

Bottled water--the emptiness evoked visions of 2010's Snowmageddon. But no, to differentiate that blizzard from the impending 2016 experience, we've expanded our lexicon to predict Snowzilla (according to today's Washington Post). Which will prove to be worse?
Cooking oil--not a single bottle to be found. Can we anticipate fried chicken or stir fry on every table?
Ice cream--only a few pints remaining. Of course! Just what you need on a 20-degree day to cool your innards! (And how did they keep it from melting while they waited a half hour in line?)

Plenty of chicken, potatoes, and oranges still to go around. You know, the more nutritious stuff. Requires cleaning, peeling, and cooking.

At Yes! organic market on 8th Street, hundreds of crates of canned beans and tomatoes were delivered during the last two days. Firewood and bags of rock salt were stacked six feet high on the sidewalk. By 12:30 pm today, the line to purchase organic produce and wine wound twice around the aisles of the tiny store.
Three blocks away, traffic backed up in front of Frager's, Capitol Hill's only hardware store. So many cars circled the block, waiting to park, that even a fire engine couldn't get through.
On my walk home, I pondered the apprehension that weather announcers must feel as they stock up on their own provisions and gas up the four-wheel drive for tomorrow's slog to the studio. Will the weather gods roll the dice in favor of an accurate forecast? Or, with a wink of the eye and a crinkle of a smile, will they send Al Roker and Willard Scott to sit in the corner under a dunce cap as the clouds roll away in an unexpected direction? The anticipation is deafening (as will be the applause or critique).

At 1 pm (the forecasted storm "launch" time), I frowned and tightened my grip on my bag of yogurt, grapefruit, and multi-grain bread as I anxiously scanned the sky. Not a single flake visible in the atmosphere. No blizzard to whiten my outlook. All this worry and standing in lines for ... a false alarm? Could the gods be laughing at the poor, prosecuted forecasters in Washington, DC?

Then, at precisely 1:03 pm (according to the precision digital network of cell phone technology), a single snowflake drifted from the low-hanging clouds, meandering past my eager eyes on its way to the red brick sidewalk. Boom! It landed and stuck. At 1:07 pm, its sisters, brothers, and cousins launched an all-out rush to get to the party.

By the time Pope ventured out three and a half hours later to retrieve the shovel from under the front steps, an extended family of snowflakes had converged on our sidewalk: 8 branches, distant aunts and uncles, and casual acquaintances from far-flung locations. The party had indeed begun, and it looked like it could get crowded.
Weathermen and meteorologists, rest easy tonight. The weather gods rolled the dice and sent the blizzard you forecast. The nation will forgive the 7-minute delay in execution. Tomorrow, we will laud your foresight as the key to the thorough preparations that will ultimately mitigate the damage.

This time, you won the gamble.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fueling the Economy: the All-American Shopping Experience

What exotic new gizmos are popping up at shopping centers all over the country? I hadn't been in a big mall like Tysons Corner for about 10 years. So, being a patriotic American committed to contributing to the economy, and because visitors from Croatia asked to go there, I launched  an exploratory expedition to the big mall in the suburbs, to see how I could help. Just before Christmas, naturally.
First techno-wonder encountered: a helpful robotic at the parking garage to tell you how many spaces are left. Plenty on this weekday! (To those of you who shop regularly, this is probably old hat. Congratulations, you are feeding the economy.)

Peeking into shop windows: oh, what strange and wondrous gadgets immediately caught my eye--and not in a good way!
When does a Christmas ornament make you feel ill? When it features the anti-Santa. Fortunately, one other politician was featured in the same series, somewhat mitigating the sinking feeling in my gut. Still...
Next stop: the Tesla showroom in the middle of the mall--the ultimate high-tech-mobile. (Hmm. The mall? What a strange and wondrous place to sell cars!) And what did my Croatian friends think? They could barely contain their excitement! It turns out the Tesla founder was born Croatian.
Much more down to earth (I.e. less expensive): glitter and glitz for your holiday table. Nothing that requires tech support. Now that Christsmas is past, stock up for next year. Deep discounts.
To round off an amazingly educational tour (by showing me what I've been missing at that American institution, the mall), I gawked at the very latest conveyor-belt/restaurant technology.  Who know how many hours that plate of raw fish has traveled this complicated circuit?
As the antidote to my day at the mall, I bid farewell to my foreign friends--who by then were out on the street, mesmerized by the dense conglomeration of tail-lights stuck in rush hour on Route 7--and headed home to cook up some organic greens in my simple and rustic townhouse.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Back in the Saddle

My friend David is planning a bicycle trip along the rivers of Germany. I remember well what it was like on my own cross-country excursions, mostly with the American Youth Hostels, 40 years ago. It was exciting. I met people. I accomplished physical feats. But to do it at my age? I don't miss the days of slogging uphill against the wind, bruised pelvic bones, close calls with cars, and panic as the tires skidded sideways on a sharp turn. Then getting back on to do it again.
Now, just biking across town is a challenge on my one-speed, fat-tire beach bike. My quads have grown lax from months of nursing a broken foot, and yes, I admit it, retirement. It's easy to get comfortable--in bed, on the sofa, at the dining room table--and let the days wither away. It takes discipline to tackle your TO DO list, let alone exercise.
How to get motivated? How to get off my duffer and back in the saddle? I visit my acupuncturist twice a week. (Dr. Canh Tran, a licensed M.D. covered by insurance.) To get there by Metro costs several dollars. That can add up, for someone on a pension yet not old enough for the 50% senior discount.

Financial incentives aside, cycling is more interesting than treadmills and ellipticals. Mid-day, with light traffic, I can get from Eastern Market to Farragut West in a half hour riding very fast, or an hour at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights. I am one of the few cyclists who stops for red lights on the cross-town bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Capitol in the background. The others are probably racing to work. Being unemployed, I can relish the journey.
On the sunny, 50-degree days of a mid-Atlantic December, a leisurely trip offers seasonal window displays on Pennsylvania Avenue and leftover autumn leaves in Lafayette Park.

A detour to the US Capitol Christmas tree, from the Chugach National Forest, reveals hand-crafted ornaments representing sea creatures of Alaska: herring, jellyfish, Sponge Bob.
As a young adult, my destinations were more ambitious: Traverse Bay, Michigan. Point Pelee in Ontario, Canada. Okefenokee Swamp. Charleston, South Carolina.

I don't remember the other bikers, except Tim (above), who I had a crush on. (He married Rose, another biker.) Wheeling across the state of Georgia, we stopped in Plains to chat with Billy Carter, the President's brother. Remember Billy Beer? We finished at Jekyll Island on the coast.

We sometimes traveled to our starting point in an RV, which also served as sag wagon. On a Florida trip, after getting stuck in toe straps and going down, crushing an elbow, I drove the RV for a week--with one arm. It was more fun than riding the bike!

Tracksuits were all the rage, at least in Michigan. My orange tracksuit matched my bike.

I groused about wind and rain. I could change tires in 10 minutes and carried tools for repairing spokes and chains. At times, the bike was loaded with camping gear. Regardless of weight, I always struggled to keep up. Sometimes, I cried--from frustration, exhaustion, loneliness, pain.

Now, I carry only a U-lock, I ride alone, and my itinerary is flexible: a doctor's appointment, a downtown errand, a visit to the "modern" art at the renovated Renwick.
On a windy or rainy day, I can fall back on taking Metro.
Yes, I'm back in the saddle again. A few times a week, a few miles at a time. No rivers in Germany, no tents, no wolfing down energy bars. Just a leisurely day, some sunshine, and my wheels going round and round.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Autumn Leaves...Drifted to the Ground Already

Lyrics to Sinatra song "Autumn Leaves" (for the benefit of those born in the last half century):
The falling leaves drift by my window, the falling leaves of red and gold.
I almost missed the chance to photograph the autumn leaves! They are no longer drifting past the windows; they have carpeted the ground and are awaiting the next frost. The trees shown above displayed their true colors at Holiday Hill Marina in Edgewater, MD, in late October.
I left you last, dear readers, at the St. Michaels Marina. Four of us--Captain Pope, First Mate Amber, Second Mate Henry (Pope's brother), and Third Mate John--sailed across Chesapeake Bay on Echo II to attend the annual Oysterfest. Pope entered the oyster slurping contest, where ... he got them all in his mouth but didn't win because he didn't get them all the way down his gullet. Too bad; he could have competed in the nationals.
Oysters were not the only attraction. The lanes of St. Michael's were bursting with oranges and golds, contrasted with whitewashed railings and fences of previous centuries.
After a chilly night onboard, we left the historic village behind. The day started blustery and cold and warmed to a pleasant Sunday. I bundled up and enjoyed the sail--the sun came out and the boat didn't heel too badly.

Pope thoroughly enjoyed the sail, because he got to unfurl the new jib sail for which he paid many hundreds of dollars... and it passed its maiden test with flying whites.
Crew members Henry and John, being veterans of the Echo II inexpensive package deals, knew they could get away with loafing around munching crackers and chatting about old times while the captain and first mate unhooked the dock lines, raised the mainsail, steered the boat, prepared lunch, cleaned the galley, manned the VHF, and ... well, you know, the usual boat chores.
We passed other boats, some with colorful spinnakers, also grasping one of the last beautiful sailing weekends. 
Back at our marina in Edgewater, we were treated to another colorful display of unmasked xanthophylls and carotenoids (the pigments in yellow and orange leaves).
Just as leaves transition from season to season, so, too, do our recreations and follies. The following week, Echo II was hauled out for the winter.
The Echo II crew reassembled on dry land, under the glorious yellow maples at the Barrow farm. Joined by the third Barrow brother Jake, who flew in from New Mexico, they shamelessly scarfed down another large batch of Chesapeake Bay oysters, claiming they can never get enough Stingrays and Olde Salts.
Not being much of an oyster connoisseur, I retired to a leafy meadow with some friends and neighbors to play music (one of my favorite retirement pastimes) while waiting for the oysters to run out and the embers to mellow to the ideal marshmallow-roasting stage.
It wasn't long before autumn transitioned into the chilly temperatures of early winter. The house is creaking and I sit next to the radiator, blogging away about nothing more exciting than autumn leaves and oysters. 
Some of you know that I had been planning to regale you with tales of my adventurous drive to Pensacola, Florida, stopping to hike in the Tennessee mountains and to visit a college friend in Asheville, NC. The trip was cancelled by my traveling companions due to that scourge of aging--medical issues. So I remain in DC, ensconced in a heavy sweater, consigned to strumming my guitar, lifting weights at the gym, and writing about the reds and yellows on the ground outside my window.