And there was light …

Cousin Pete and I were swapping text messages yesterday afternoon. “IS PWR ON?” “WTF NSTAR?” (Nstar is our electric company) “I AM BAILING” “IF I BAIL THEN LIGHTS WILL COME BACK”

72 hours of a 19th century lifestyle (I don’t know what Pete was bitching about, he had a Honda generator plugging away on his back deck all weekend) but without the whale oil lamps, just crappy scented candles, LED lanterns, and the family collection of flash lights, and I was ready to shovel out the garage and decamp in the sedan for my Manhattan apartment. Instead I hit the gym and made arrangements to take a pity shower at a friend’s place in Osterville. The other squatters had just had their power restored and were decamping, so I took them up on the suggestion to spend the night there, came home, packed up the dog, some food and some old DVDs and settled in for a night of Swedish cinema, leftover coq au vin, and a glass of Talisker on another person’s couch.

Pete texted me at 8 that the power was back in Cotuit. So I turned off the tube, packed up the dog, and returned home to Cotuit in thick fog to a cheery house; a house alive for the first time in three days with the hum of furnaces, refrigerators, blinking alarm clocks and radiant heat.

Here’s what I learned in the darkness.

  • Reading is everything. I plowed right through Charles Dubow’s first novel, Indiscretion on my Kindle, using a LED lantern to illuminate the e-ink. Then I resumed my reading of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War.
  • The Grundig YB 400PE “Yacht Boy” radio is an amazing device. I bought it in New York in 1996 and it has become a cherished possession, living on my boat during the summer for listening to the Red Sox, in my shed in the spring to keep me company while I paint the boats. From a decent sound to the ability to pull in shortwave signals, this radio is what I want with me during any storm or zombie apocalypse. The sounds coming out of it broke the eerie silence of the house and kept me company. NPR (WCAI in Woods Hole), reggae music from the U-Mass Dartmouth radio station (WUMD) and folk from WUMB kept me from going full-Shining.
  • Natural gas makes all the difference. The Vermont Castings gas stove and the four range-top burners on the stove kept the house around 55 degrees, even on Saturday night when temperatures where in the teens. No gas and the house would have been a freezer, likely bursting pipes and causing a complete disaster.
  • Candles are pretty but useless and scare the hell out of me. Old wooden houses like mine tend to burn down in five minutes because of candles. The things are useless in terms of real illumination, are a pain to move around (hot wax drips everywhere), and can’t be left unattended.
  • One thinks a lot about life before electricity. It’s a well known fact that rural electrification reduces birth rates and increases literacy, but to look out at the village center, streetlights (see post below) gone, only some dim flickers of orange from candles in the neighbors’ windows, and one can’t help but speculate about what life was like before electricity, especially in Colonial times, when the night meant the world shrank to the penumbra of the lantern, where candles were made by hand by rendering down pig fat and then dipping, over and over, strings suspended from sticks like we made in first grade. How did readers read and writers write? What happened to society at sunset? Families must have gathered around the fire, shared a candle or two, and talked. I know the old-timers kept one or two rooms heated and basically dressed and undressed there, bathed there, ate there, but slept in cold rooms (hence the old bedwarmers) under piles of blankets and comforters.
  •  Bed time came more out of boredom than necessity. I was in bed by 10 each of the dark nights. One wakes at the earliest possible light because sunlight means life and the ability to get something done.
  • Life off-line for a few days was a good thing. Sprint seems to have lost its cell signals in Cotuit as I was in roaming mode on my smartphone and barely able to get mobile data on the device. Roaming seems to chew through battery life, so I needed to turn the phone off while I slept, forgot to turn it on, and was unable to respond to text messages and calls asking if I was okay. The spare power cell that came with my Duracell Powermat was a great thing to have. I will not take Google for granted again. If I needed to know the frequency of a radio station, I needed to Google it. If I needed to know what percentage of Barnstable was in the dark. I needed a connection. If I wanted any media other than a book, I needed a connection. The news that the Obama administration is getting serious about Cyber warfare is timely: if the bad guys shut off the power the chaos will be astonishing. The thought is enough to turn a skeptic into a full-blown Prepper.
  • My car became my charging station. I’d go for rides with the dog just to give the phone and spare battery a little charge.
  • People drive like morons after storms. I think it’s the “soft and puffy” effect where they think the snow banks and pretty trees give them some cushioning, but in truth driving is still treacherous, especially because of the piles of downed trees sitting right on the edge of the road. Frozen storm drains create deep puddles, warm winds blow think mist across the streets, subtract the street lights, add in the usual winter-learning curve of remembering how to drive in icy conditions, and its a wonder I didn’t have an accident. (I did back into the house while trying to get out of the driveway, but that’s another story.
  • Bird feeders become an amazing thing after blizzards, especially if one provides the birds some water.
  • The power company’s “outage” map is a nice thing, but couldn’t they hire someone to provide a little more information? It was especially frustrating to see half of the village with lights and not know why or what the problem was. Obviously there is some sort of prioritization going on when it comes to restoring electricity — hospitals, public safety, traffic lights, commercial accounts come first — but how does the power company even know who is in the dark and who isn’t? How do they dispatch their trucks and crews? How does the power grid work? Why don’t we bury our power lines once and for all? Can you imagine the danger and agony of standing in a bucket truck in a full fledged blizzard splicing big cables together?
  • I need to suck it up and install a generator.

 

The Light That Failed

image

Looks like another night without electricity. The gas stove and range are keeping the pipes thawed. Shoveled out from underneath this morning, cruised the beaches, and took the dog to the dock. Life has come down to eating, reading, and listening to the radio. We broke out the Strat-o-matic and are going to play the 09 Red Sox against the Yankees. I picked the wrong weekend to start watching the West Wing on Netflix.

Snowmageddon

I’ve wimped out on New York City today thanks to a single word in the National Weather Service’s storm warning.

Historic

I don’t want to be part of history and I don’t want to sit in the dark with two feet of mashed potato snow to shovel on Sunday morning but that seems to be my fate. I was in college in ’78 — the National Guard had to dig us out — and won’t ever forget the monster dumping that hit Cotuit in 2005 when we had drifts over the first floor’s window sills.   This one is forecast to drop a foot of snow and blow hurricane strength late Friday night through Saturday afternoon.

So time to start cooking, do what needs to be done where electricity is required, and get ready to make some history.

Indiscretion: Charles Dubow

My friend Charles Dubow published his first novel, Indiscretion, this week. Tonight he will read from it at the Barnes and Nobles at 150 E. 86th St. at 7 pm. I won’t be there thanks to the “historic” blizzard forecasted to obliterate Cape Cod tomorrow.

This isn’t a “review” for two reasons:

  1. I haven’t read the book(I read an unfinished draft two summers ago)
  2. I am too friendly with the author to be trusted as an objective critic.

What this post is, I suppose, is pure praise and congratulation for my friend — the author and his fine writing — and a strong, heartfelt recommendation that you give him your money and buy his first novel and read it, trusting me that you will be happy you did.

dubow

We were introduced in the mid-90s by Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI, the lifestyle supplement to Forbes Magazine. I was putting Forbes’ various magazines online and the excellent content published by Chris was a priority for me. I described my need to enhance his magazine with original, online-only content and that I was willing to budget and fund a position to be the online editor, reporting jointly to both Chris and myself. Chris knew just the guy and made the introduction to Charles.

Charles was part of the original gang that launched Forbes onto the web. We were given a bleak second floor office a few blocks uptown from the Forbes headquarters near Union Square and set about building an open newsroom. But Charles insisted on his own office. He really insisted on his own office to the point that we gave in and gave him a little veal pen of an office with a door which he furnished with an oriental rug, an antique floor lamp, and a spavined old leather chair. None of us were aware of the future at the time, but that newsroom launched some amazing careers. Om Malik and GigaOm. Adam Penenberg and the Shattered Glass scandal. And now Charles and his first novel.

Charles is a man born out of time. Always impeccably dressed, hair slicked back (you’d almost expect him to wear an ascot), a true raconteur who tells stories in a droll, classical tone of voice that isn’t English but isn’t American either. A hybrid diction punctuated with a charming stammer, a knowing leer, and a great laugh. There are three or four people in my life who’s judgment and recommendations of books I trust completely. Charles is one of them. His passion for obscure British travel writers, introducing me to the novels of William Boyd, to Colin the bartender at the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, to his fondness for 12-year old Macallan, the Chicken Hash at Twenty-One, giving me his late father’s bowtie collection……he’s one of a kind, a man from another era, the last person you’d expect to see hanging around the dingy newsroom of an online magazine. But he did and he not only made Forbes.com a better place, he delivered one of the strongest categories on that site and repeated that magic at Businessweek.com and then Bloomberg.

Now, at the age of 49 he is a novelist. If there was ever hope that a writer can deliver a masterpiece later in life, Charles is an inspiration. That isn’t to say he hadn’t tried before. He had. Only this time he knew he had something worth publishing.  I’ve written unpublished novels and the agony of being a writer is knowing when the work is good or not. Charles kept plugging away until he found his voice. His perseverance is his reader’s gain.

I was honored when he asked me to read the first draft of Indiscretion in 2010. He asked to borrow the details of a story I told him about deliberately crashing a car into a seawall while wearing my hockey pads as well as the name of the Yale hockey rink (“The Whale”) for his tragic hero, a successful novelist who throws it all away for a younger woman. I read the Word Doc on my iPad, beginning with some apprehension because one never knows about friends and first drafts.

“This is actually really good,” I said to my wife after ten pages.  Two days later, as I finished, I told her Charles had written an amazing novel, one more than deserving of publication, one that could — dare I jinx it? — become a bestseller.

I wrote up some notes and made some suggestions, but the book was unfinished. Even unfinished it was a very good, if not great book. After Charles sold it to William Morrow he offered to send me the final manuscript, but I demurred, pre-ordered it on Amazon , and told him I’d wait for the actual book and not some digital version.

Indiscretion is the story of an ideal couple and the loss of their marriage by the intrusion of another woman. It is told by a family friend, Walter, and is set in New York, the  Hamptons, Paris and Rome.  Charles limns great characters, is a strong structuralist, has a knowing ear for dialogue, and … in the hands of a lesser writer, could have easily let the novel slip into the category of beach reading.  What elevates the book and saves it from the salacious category of yet another adultery story set in classy places is the verisimilitude of the details, the fact that Charles lived and lives in this world and to cite the trite exhortation given to every writer to write about what they know, Charles actually knows this milieu and never has to fake it.

The word “gatsbyesque” is being rolled out by nearly every one of the first reviews of Indiscretion. I confess I made comparisons to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece as I read the draft. But Fitzgerald was always the writer standing on the sidewalk, nose pressed to the glass, looking into the bright restaurant filled with the people he envied, just a guy from St. Paul. Minnesota who was bedazzled by the world of the wealthy.

Charles grew up in the restaurant, and that experience imbues the novel with a precision and truth that saves it from becoming a Judith Krantz cliche and elevates it to one of the more outstanding depictions of Manhattan-Hamptons life I have ever read.

I predict great things and tip my hat to him for persevering with his dream.

Here’s a link to an early review by Richard Z. Santos at Kirkus.

The book can be found on Amazon here.

 

Fully charged

My daughter gave me a Duracell Powermat for Christmas and I’m loving it so much I bought a second one for my New York office. The system consists of a sleek base unit that can accommodate two devices, a case for my Samsung Galaxy S3, and a portable battery unit that can charge a fading phone away from the base. This is cordless charging, the same inductive technology used to recharge electric toothbrushes. I first saw it demonstrated in 2009 at Qualcomm, but it was a bit clunky and didn’t seem all that interesting at the time.

But in practice the system is awesome with a couple irritations. After fitting the case over the phone and plugging it’s male connector into the phone’s female micro-USB port (tight fit, which makes changing cases a bit of a hassle — more on that in a second) the phone can be placed on the charging base where it magnetically slips into the proper position with an audible confirmation that charging has started. I set the phone to go into “bedside” mode when its docked on the Powermat. Only two phones are supported — the Galaxy and the iPhone 4s — but the iPhone 5 case is expected sometime soon. The base units come in three, two and single device configurations. I thought the spare battery brick was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, but on a recent vacation it was pressed into use.

The hard plastic case isn’t as rugged as an Otterbox and has to be removed if I want to dock the phone in the car cradle. I imagine Duracell has a car unit in the works, but for now I have to peel off the Duracell case to use the phone in the car for the usual GPS/handsfree/Audible/music stuff.

Duracell is pushing the technology hard, painting a picture where charging bases will be available in coffee shops, nightclubs, airport lounges, stadiums, etc.. and apparently truly wireless charging is over the horizon.

Here’s the obligatory YouTube vision of Millenial bliss:

The double-device mat is $90 at Amazon and includes the portable battery pack and a case for a single phone.. A one-device mat is $32.

A clean, well-lit street and a port in a storm

One of my earliest memories is from the age of two or three, riding in the back seat of an old Plymouth being driven at night by my father, my mother beside him, along some Greater Boston parkway, probably on our way to Melrose to see my grandparents. No kiddie seat. No seatbelt. Just me alone in the backseat, unattended and laying on my back, looking up through the rear window at the street lights flashing past in a hypnotic green pattern.

Street lights cast a green splash of light then. Bare incandesent bulbs suspended under a scalloped metal reflector hung over the streets, probably the 1.0 or 2.0 version of electric street lights, the first generation to be installed after they did away with horses and buggies and gaslights. I’ve always missed that greenish hue, though lord knows my brother and I did our best with our delinquent friends blasting out the bulbs with our WristRockets and pockets full of ball bearings salvaged from an old Pachinko machine we got one Christmas.

At some point the street lights of my childhood were all converted to orange high pressure sodium vapor lamps — salmon colored light that made everything flat and ugly. I hated them when they appeared in the 1970s. As one fellow sodium vapor hater, Hal Espen, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 2011:

“Following the economic imperative to use the most cost-effective lighting—high-pressure sodium lights consume half as much energy as mercury-vapor lamps and can last up to 16,000 hours longer—transportation departments and cities embraced sodium light. It was as though someone said “Fiat lux sulfurea—“Let there be light from hell.” The relentless spread of sodium streetlights is documented in NASA night photographs from space: New York City and Los Angeles are circuit boards of glowing orange, and Long Beach, one of the world’s busiest ports, is a flare of tarnished gold. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where 85 percent of streetlights use sodium. The jaundiced weirdness of sodium light has become a vexing challenge to photographers (one filmmaker, Tenolian Bell, called it “the ugliest light known to the cinematographer”); movie cameras simulate its color by using a gel filter named Bastard Amber.”

I never realized how much I hated them until one night in late November in 1980 when I was delivering an elderly 60′ plywood catamaran named the Dushka from Falmouth to West Palm Beach and entered Chesapeake Bay in bad weather.  I had never been that far south and we made landfall on our second night out of Falmouth — a sleepless 48 hour stretch because I was the only person on board who could navigate let alone sail the demonic craft which sailed so fast it left the tops of the ocean swells and went airborne from time to time with terrifying results.

As we coasted down the Delaware and Virginia coast that afternoon I had a very good idea of where we were. I was dead reckoning — essentially estimating our position by keeping close track of distance, speed and time — and cross checking that with the depth finder and an semi-useless radio directional finder. As we screamed along at 15 knots, past the Chincoteague Island  (home of the wild horses, where the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague was set)  I was very aware of the failing light and the unfortunate timing of our landfall with the Chesapeake. I thought about standing offshore for the night and coming in the next morning, but the NOAA radio was talking up a gale and I was really looking forward to some sleep. As we blasted along the shoreline, about two miles out, I said goodbye to the setting sun and stared at the orange street lights popping on one after another, all the while imagining the boardwalks and shuttered amusement parks underneath them in places like Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City, Maryland. And then I thought about the lucky people in their warm houses watching television after they finished a real meal, not one cooked by a seasick person who destroyed a pot of American Chop Suey by vomiting in it because he couldn’t unclip himself from the gimballed stove in time to make it on deck and the leeward rail (which was probably for the best given that American Chop Suey has so much wrong with it in both theory and practice).

Anyway, pardon the sailory digression, but things got very confusing as we tacked off of Virginia Beach and Cape Henry to make our run down the shipping channel into the Bay. Two things confused me in the darkness. First was the mental image I had of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. I pictured either a bridge OR a tunnel but not both. There was this really long string of orange sodium street lights marking the bridge. I got that part. But then there were none. Where did one steer? Was there a high span to the bridge that one crossed under? For some reason I was confused by the concept of a bridge that suddenly turned into a tunnel for a short stretch, but that was indeed the situation. So I aimed for the dark spot in the span — where the lights ended — and trusted that we wouldn’t meet our deaths when I drove the miserable multihull into a dark abutment at full speed.

(this is why it is better to sail into strange places during the day)

Compounding my confusion was the presence of a LOT of random orange street lights in front of the bridge, really weird clumps of them. Those turned out to be big ships riding out the night at anchor. Container ships, freighters, tankers, etc.. A whole flotilla of them moored in the open ocean. I didn’t know ships did that. I thought they made straight away for the big ship equivalent of a marina, but no, turns out big ships will wait outside of a port the way semi-trailers park in rest areas on Route 95. Makes sense. You don’t want to haul a load of toilet paper into downtown Manhattan at three a.m. when there is no one around to unload it and no place to park until there is. You pull off into the Thomas Edison Rest Area and take a nap.

As we drew closer to the entrance and passed a couple of the moored ships all lit up with their street lights, I figured out the phenomenon of big boats anchored out in the big ocean but still had to trust the navigational chart and fight my innate instincts. I had to trust that the black gap in the bridge lights was indeed where one entered the Bay.  It was. We shot through the gap and were safe inside, the angry Atlantic behind us. At which point the storm hit and began to rain buckets. I had no idea of where we were going other than the plan was to use the Intercoastal Waterway from Norfolk, Virginia south to Morehead City, North Carolina to avoid the Graveyard of the Atlantic, aka Cape Hatteras. I gave the wheel to the one person I trusted the most to steer the boat, popped down below, and studied the chart for the nearest possible place to anchor and ride out the storm. There was a very nice little harbor right inside of the bridge called Little Creek. The chart showed docks, just like a marina’s slips. I thought just maybe there would be a restaurant still open. With a bar.

chesapeake

 

 

The crew of the good ship were very happy by my decision to seek the nearest port in the storm. We doused the sails, fired up the engine and motored right into Little Creek. It was 3 AM. The place was quiet. I used a big flash light to pick our way down the channel. I guess the “Warning: Keep Out” sign should have been sufficient warning, but it was really howling and raining so I held my course. We passed through the breakwaters and into the middle of a big industrial boat basin lined with immense grey naval ships. Uh oh.  Turns out the full name of Little Creek is the US Navy’s Joint Expeditionary Base/Little Creek-Fort Story, the largest amphibious warfare base in the world. I motored around the perimeter of the world’s most powerful navy’s collection of amphibious assault craft looking for a place to tie up to the dock, but it was wall-t0-wall with ships and then some more ships. Big ominous war ships all lit up with big orange streetlights. So I decided to anchor in the middle of Little Creek, as far away from the warships as I could get;  lit the Dushka’s dim little masthead and anchor lights, and hit the rack for some sleep. And I slept. For about two hours. Then the bullhorns and sirens started.

“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THIS IS THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD.”

That is a very effective alarm clock. I climbed on deck wearing only boxer shorts. There was a Coast Guard 44-foot patrol boat beside us, covered with serious Coast Guardsmen holding serious guns. The rest of our motley crew came on deck and gawked.

I waved like an idiot. “Heyhowareya?” I asked. Playing dumb because I was. The Coast Guard came aboard, looked at the boat’s documents, asked some polite questions, and basically agreed with my statement of the obvious that the weather the night before had been really shitty and what was a 21 year-old knucklehead to do at three a.m.?

Last night, as I drove home after a week away, I realized that forty years of stark nacreous orange light in front of my house on Cotuit’s Main Street had been replaced by something new, something sharp, something clear and almost green-like (but more blue-like in truth). After years of a malfunctioning light that lit up, triggered the photo sensor into believing it was daylight, and then switched off again — over-and-over-and-over — the Prudential Committee of the Cotuit Fire District (or some other higher municipal power) has replaced the street lights with really bright modern LEDs.

Apologies for the blurry cell-phone picture, but you can see the old sodium lights to the left over the hill by the former Cotuit Inn and the new LEDs of which I blog in the foreground. I guess I’m easily pleased, especially in depths of a Cape Cod February when the biggest action in town is when the harbor manages to freeze over. According to the Barnstable Patriot, LEDs save a ton of money and are being phased in across the Cape.

Death to sodium vapor lighting.

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