Archive for March, 2008

Filed Under (rural living) by admin on 31-03-2008

In most cities you can find pool halls, as well as nightclubs with pool tables. Boston Billiards in Boston (I’ve also played at Boston Billiards in Danbury, CT… go figure) is an attractive, full-featured nightclub that could swallow from five to ten rural Pennsylvania pool halls.

I still have friends in Boston, and I don’t see them often enough. Conversations I’ve had with some of them lately led me to feel strongly that I needed to visit. So, on Sunday, I made the seven-hour drive.

These friends are people I met originally at a pool hall named Sully’s. We had gotten to know each other during long nights at the table, and our relationships had grown beyond Sully’s. It seemed appropriate, then, that when I checked in with one of them from an hour outside of Boston, he told me he’d meet me at Boston Billiards, an establishment just beyond right field of Fenway Park.

Amazingly, there is a pool hall within fifteen minutes of Lewisburg; it’s in the even smaller town of Northumberland. It houses, perhaps, five tables, and is among the most stinky one-room establishments I’ve ever visited: there is no smoke-free law in rural Pennsylvania, and for some reason, pool players who smoke need to do so when they’re playing pool. Pretty much the only reason to visit this stinky pool hall is to play pool.

In contrast, Boston Billiards is not really a pool hall—it is a night club with pool tables. I counted close to 50 tables… but along with them are dining tables, a dance floor, large (and small) televisions, a full bar, restaurant service, semi-private rooms (with pool tables), video games, and a pro shop. Best of all: Massachusetts doesn’t allow smoking in public buildings; there’s no need to shower and change clothes just because you spent an hour shooting pool.

The “nightclub with pool tables” phenomenon started about when Hollywood released the movie Color Of Money. These were a great innovation: Here was the classic nightclub scene for those who enjoyed it, and something interesting to do there for people who felt awkward and disconnected in a traditional nightclub. Management of the best of the nightclub pool halls understands pool enough to cater to shooters. But the worst nightclub pool hall I’ve visited (a place in Chicago) had not one device players could use to keep score—and they claimed no one had ever asked.

Boston Billiards understands players. I and my friends stayed from 1:00 PM until about 6:00. We’ll be back again in the next few days, but it won’t be enough.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural living) by admin on 28-03-2008

The 9-month-old, shriveled ornamental cherries at the end of our driveway attract Hitchcockean numbers of hungry robins when winter holds on past the end of February.

Migratory birds apparently don’t have the inside track on knowing when spring-like weather will start. Some years, it comes as early as the first week of March. Other years, it doesn’t come until April. The birds arrive pretty much at the same time each year.

This year, robins arrived from the south as usual in the last week of February. Snow still covered the ground, and it was very cold. I imagine that from a robin’s point of view, arriving in Lewisburg in February seemed like a huge mistake.

During warm weather, when I see a robin eating, it’s almost always eating worms. Though, just before our blueberries are ripe enough for human consumption, robins pluck them from the plants. I also remember as a kid seeing robins in my dad’s strawberry patch—presumably, snacking away. A Google search reveals variety in a robin’s diet: insects and fruit of all kinds. But it’s hard to imagine any of that being available in the snow and cold of late February… except for the ornamental cherries.

There’s an ornamental cherry tree nearly on the property line between my neighbor’s and my driveways. In late spring, gorgeous flowers cover the tree, and when the leaves drop away in the fall, bunches of tiny cherries cling to the ends of the branches. With the extreme cold and late-season snow, quite recently that tree was also covered with robins. There weren’t just a handful of robins; there must have been fifty or more kicking about in the tree. Apparently, in the absence of worms, caterpillars, insects, and fresh fruit, dried up ornamental cherries are good stuff.

The snow has melted, there has been another storm, and the snow has melted again. In fact, the lawn is starting to turn green, and there are worm castings between the blades of grass. Judging from the lack of robins in the tree, there is more interesting food available than nine-month-old dried up ornamental cherries. Maybe next year the robins will wait until mid-March to return from the south. I’d wait until May.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 27-03-2008

I encourage my children: when someone insists on treating you irrationally, walk away. I walked away from schoolyard playground bullies decades ago… at least some of them left the playground: they keep turning up in other places.

The City Slipper column (back issues appear at: is about the differences between urban and rural life. This blog is about the day-to-day of country living, the point being to get us better acquainted. So, while I’m usually reporting on the minutiae of my family’s world, occasionally I’ll digress into experiences that have shaped my relationship with creation. When I want to share something that goes far afield from the day-to-day, I’ll throw that onto the More Reading page. But that’s not today’s topic. Here it is:

I recently crossed paths with a man who put me in touch with a question I’ve been trying to outgrow since childhood: Am I on the wrong planet?

I tend to consider my words and actions carefully before loosing them on the world; I prefer not to offend people without cause. If I would be offended by someone doing or saying something to me, then I’m certainly not going to say or do that thing to someone else. Conversely, if I would take no offense from an act directed at me, I figure it’s pretty safe to commit the act toward others.

So, I did something in a social situation that, had anyone else done it, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought; it was entirely harmless. However, this man I mentioned (with whom I’d interacted casually over the course of several months) was very upset by my commission. His reaction was so over the top that I thought at first he must be joking; it quickly became clear he wasn’t.

But that wasn’t the most troubling issue. What puzzled me is that this older adult started calling me names. Realizing I had offended him, I apologized and explained that I had had no idea what about my actions had been so troubling to him. I asked several times for some clarification, and I apologized a second time. His only response was to be derisive and to continue calling me names.

I was back in the schoolyard playground where bullies irrationally abuse people who simply want to get along. The same playground where I first asked that question: Am I on the wrong planet?

I want to live on a planet where, when adults make innocent mistakes, other adults forgive. Where, when someone offends me, I can help them to understand why I was offended… and then move on. I want to live on a planet where people put in more energy trying to get along with each other than they do being spiteful and unpleasant.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 24-03-2008

One upshot of my week as Supreme Commander is that I ended up cleaning the stove so it wouldn’t be outstandingly gross for the appliance repair guy. I pulled it out of its alcove and degreased every visible surface. If you’ve never pulled your stove out of its alcove, trust me: there is stuff stuck to it that words can’t describe.

My wife made slugs seem lively. Since last Monday, she has been in bed, or in her easy chair in the living room. A nasty cough and sore back muscles had made sleep difficult, and a fever had sucked away her will to do anything. This made me supreme commander of the household.

I’m already supreme commander of the kitchen—when my wife went to work as a school teacher, I wrested control of the cooking gear and the weekly grocery shopping. But as my wife’s motivational crisis unfolded last week, I took near complete control of our little world (she was in no condition to contest my coupe).

As supreme commander, I tried to keep things running smoothly for everyone. Of course, the cooking and grocery shopping had to continue. But now there was the certainty of cleaning the kitchen each night. Under normal circumstances, I clean the kitchen several times a week—but my wife has been bigger about doing it than I tend to be. Last week, I owned the nighttime cleanup.

I also owned the morning school preparation. It’s not huge work, but lately I’ve lost the up-at-dawn habit, so getting up to pack lunches for the kids and get them to “early morning” rehearsals when necessary cut an hour or more out of my sleep schedule. The trips to my wife’s school to drop off stuff the substitute would need to teach class each day ate up time I might have spent writing.

Kids continued to have places to go in the evenings. By Tuesday, I’d already messed up some of that, but we made it to all events through the rest of the week. I felt some guilt abandoning my wife on Friday, but it had been several days since she’d been even the least bit scintillating, and I suspect she hardly noticed she was alone when I took the kids for a trip around central Pennsylvania (see the March 21st entry for a report).

Then things really tanked: I started cleaning a kitchen cabinet, which meant throwing out outdated cans and boxes, and stacking the good items on the counter. Then, through her mucous-induced haze, my wife requested crafts supplies for a project she hoped to teach in school on Monday… and one of my kids got invited to lunch on Saturday (the Von Trap family from the high school musical had a reunion). Our neighbor called and asked us to walk their dogs on Saturday night and Sunday… a minor distraction when the household is running normally. Turns out their new puppy didn’t want to befriend the intruder who couldn’t remember its name; it took an hour for the dog to warm up to me before I got a leash on it.

So, on Sunday the kitchen counter was buried in food products, and I danced around it as I stuffed and roasted a turkey for our Easter dinner. But to keep myself centered, I carried 47 tons of dirty clothes downstairs, sorted them, guessed which settings to use on the washer, tried not to shrink or melt anything in the dryer, and folded 45 tons of clean clothes (with that many clothes—and kids—you wash out at least two tons of dirt… never mind the weight of the socks that never make it out of the laundry.)

With about twenty minutes of roasting to go, I put a pot of potatoes on the stove to cook, and the stove went blooey. In fact, the burners and the oven died; nothing was cooking.

The neighbors were still away, so I finished cooking the turkey there. I cooked vegetables in our microwave oven. The meal was ready only forty minutes later than planned, and it was all reasonably edible. Even my wife remained upright long enough to dine… and she went to school this morning; I hope she can remain upright until the dismissal bell rings and then some. I’m ready to relinquish command.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 21-03-2008

Visit Hershey, Pennsylvania for a world-class amusement park, a classic golf course, outlet store shopping, and headliner performances. Don’t go out of your way for the free “Chocolate World” attraction that explains how Hershey makes chocolate; singing cows make the experience rather silly. I’m sure it would be way cool to tour a working chocolate factory.

The kids had the Thursday and Friday before Easter off from school. I’d been trying to conceive of an overnight or a day trip that would be very inexpensive, yet fresh. Inexpensive immediately rules out movies, shows, museums, amusement parks, and zoos… unless you drive to Washington DC where taxpayer money has funded many fascinating attractions you can visit for free. Driving to DC and back makes for an exhausting day, so I opted for an all-Pennsylvania experience.

We travelled a two-lane country road that took us through Centralia. That’s the semi-infamous town—now abandoned—that sits on a burning coal vein. The road detours around much of the town, but there is a cemetery where you can turn out and drive past barren home sites smoking with fumes from the underground fire. The wind chilled us quickly, but I squatted for a moment and held my hand about an inch above a smoking mound of soil; it felt pleasantly warm… and was quite sobering.

We continued our drive to Hawk Mountain, a preserve over which thousands of hawks migrate each year. In the visitors’ center, we learned that ignorant people used to sit on Hawk Mountain and kill thousands of hawks each year. Efforts of naturalist Rosalie Edge ended the slaughter and created the first ever raptor preserve. We’ll return in September to walk the trails during the peak migration season.

From there, we drove to Cabela’s outdoor outfitting store. This wasn’t about shopping. Sure, at Cabela’s you can find just about any outdoor equipment related to fishing, hunting, camping, and cooking. But more than that, the store is a shrine to hunters. There are impressive aquaria holding fish you might catch in central Pennsylvania. There is a long wall of mounted heads of game animals. There are exhibits of mounted animals from several climates. There is an exhibit of antlered deer with details about what made each newsworthy when it was killed. People who fish and hunt owe themselves a pilgrimage to a Cabela’s store. Ours was more of an anthropological look at the culture.

We toured for nearly two hours, then had lunch (Cabela’s has a decent restaurant inside), and finally headed into Hershey to visit the free Chocolate World attraction. This is an automated ride with narration that vaguely explains how Hershey makes chocolate candy… it’s really quite silly. It ends at the entrance to a “chocolate mall” where you can buy what must be any or every candy product that Hershey manufactures.

We had a nice time, though we logged close to three and a half hours of driving. On a warmer day, we’d skip the indoor attractions, and visit hiking trails and parks; I’d rather see critters roaming in the wilderness than stuffed and mounted in an outdoor outfitting store.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 18-03-2008

In 20 years, with the exception of a dicey pregnancy, I haven’t seen my wife debilitated for more than a day at a time… and that only rarely. Now she has an illness that resembles one I had about three weeks ago. My illness sucked nine days out of my life; I hope hers is more merciful.

It’s my wife’s first year as an elementary school teacher, so planning, preparation, and grading her students’ work keeps her very busy. Sadly, she has had a nasty virus since early last week. She’s stoic, and she’s a volunteer junky. As her Odyssey of the Mind team’s run ended at the regional competition, she immediately jumped in to help with the High School musical. She worked backstage at several performances. Her cold raged on, and she actually excused herself from helping one evening when she realized her illness had become overwhelming… but she was back the next day as if her symptoms were subsiding.

When she returned from school yesterday, she didn’t pop in to say hi. In fact, I knew she was back only when I heard thumping and squeaking above me as she climbed into bed (my office is directly beneath our bedroom). The kids and I left her alone, and it became apparent that she wasn’t getting up any time soon.

Our lives became much more challenging. My daughter had stayed home from school yesterday with a cold of her own. We needed to cancel her horseback riding lesson, but only my wife knows how—so we ended up standing up the instructor. My son’s cello teacher called to try to move my son’s lesson from Thursday night to Friday night—but I deferred because we hadn’t yet made a decision about how we’d spend our four-day weekend. In the morning, I bumbled together school lunches, delivered a kid to “early morning” band practice, and zipped out to my wife’s school to drop off her day’s lesson plan and pick up her students’ completed homework assignments.

The additional tasks cut into the day. They’re manageable, but I get edgy at unexpected diversions from my work—especially when I’m behind (and I’m close to a month behind on some key projects). If my wife is out for long, I expect I’ll make peace with the shifted focus: more taxi service and household logistics, less writing and web-development.

Still, I don’t look forward to coming days when there may be more early morning, and new after school transportation challenges. My wife is generally very upbeat, so it’s uncomfortable to see her so beat down… and the only thing I can do to help is to try to handle some of the tasks she usually does. The household has a different, less comfortable cadence. We’ll get by, but I want my wife back.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 14-03-2008

There are so many unsung heroes of High School musicals: Stage hands? They may at least get a curtain call. Members of the pit orchestra get a nod during curtain calls, but with backs to the stage, they have no idea when the audience is applauding them. Least acknowledged of all are the parents who shuttle kids back-and-forth, help with costumes and set-building, and deal with logistics of feeding cast and crew and managing the post-production party. In a small town like Lewisburg, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left to make an audience, let alone five audiences.

The Lewisburg Area High School’s production of The Sound Of Music was terrific. But that opinion is a little premature because there are three more performances till the final curtain call. The crew performed for a select audience on Wednesday afternoon, and offered their first fully public performance last night. They’ll go again tonight, and twice tomorrow.

I’d not seen a stage production of The Sound Of Music, but, like many Americans, I’ve seen the movie several times. And, as much as I’ve enjoyed the story and the music, the most intense emotional moment I remember from the movie was tension and outrage toward the Nazi imposition into the lives of the Von Traps.

So, I was kind of surprised to find myself getting choked up several times during last night’s performance. It seems as I’ve gotten older and correspondingly more cynical, that I’ve become more vulnerable to the idea of wholesomeness; scenes that depicted people generally caring for each other and expressing it openly almost brought me to tears.

To hear my kids tell it, the show was nearly a disaster. My son the actor was aware of missed lines, bollixed entrances, missed marks on stage, and a few difficult moments back stage. My son the cellist was aware of several mistakes made by the pit orchestra. (It’s odd to think this collection of musicians will attend every performance, yet never see the play.)

From where I sat, the voices were smooth and sweet, the sets and scene changes were solid, the pit orchestra was balanced and clean, and the stage management and choreography were tight (though I did notice some nuns bowing a little early during the curtain calls).

After the show, we exited down a hallway lined by the performers and some of the crew. It was weird to see so many of the characters suddenly become friends of my kids, siblings of my kids’ friends, or kids I’ve coached on soccer teams and their siblings. That made the theatre experience even more special. It’s possible there has never been a better performance of The Sound Of Music on any stage.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 12-03-2008

I watched my classmates perform South Pacific when I was in 8th grade. The production was astounding. More than thirty years later, I’m excited to have tickets to Lewisburg Area High School’s performance of The Sound Of Music. It’s gonna be a great show.

It seems that every high school in The Valley is performing a musical in mid-to-late March. Lewisburg High School is producing that Rogers & Hammerstein classic, The Sound Of Music.

We’ve attended Lewisburg High School’s musicals the past several years, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I’m especially looking forward to this year’s because one of my kids is in the cast, and another is playing in the pit orchestra.

With the commotion of getting kids to and from evening and weekend rehearsals, I’ve had a recurring thought about High School musicals: I can’t remember ever hearing someone fresh from an audience comment about the performance having been bad. Thinking back even to musicals my classmates performed in junior high school (7th, 8th, and 9th grades where I grew up), I have never seen a dud.

I imagine that most people never see a Broadway show, while only a few more see travelling Broadway productions, and slightly more see local professional theatre productions. These shows are readily available in cities, but uncommon in rural communities. So, it’s possible that a high school musical is the most polished stage show my neighbors will ever see… but I doubt it.

I’d bet that people who attend high school stage productions do catch professional productions from time-to-time. I’ve seen nearly a dozen shows on Broadway, at least as many travelling Broadway troupes, and local theatre in several small towns—I even saw a play at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. The biggest failures were with Broadway shows: the ticket prices create expectation for flawless theatre experiences, so when a show is only good, it’s disappointing.

So, I expect this year’s Sound Of Music to be as outstanding as every high school musical I’ve seen; I’m pumped for theatre. But are high school musicals really that good, or do we overlook flaws that would bother us if they occurred in a professional production? It doesn’t really matter.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 10-03-2008

Don’t know whether my foot is sprained or broken, but I’m tossing the cleats in my closet. I want to get healthy for golf season.

I play soccer on a men’s over 30 soccer league. I also play with a local club that runs pickup games twice a week. The league plays indoors through the winter. The club plays outdoors through the spring, summer, and fall.

I play mostly for exercise—I have virtually no skill. It’s a lot of fun, but I’m not real committed to the club… in warm weather, I try to play golf two or more times a week, and it’s hard to get enthusiastic about adding three or four hours of running on top of that.

I’m much more committed to the soccer league because golf opportunities are rare in the winter. It’s very cool to be able to play soccer on a grass-like surface even as a blizzard swirls outside.

Yesterday, my team played its 22nd game of the season. We were holding our own: we’d had a half-dozen solid scoring opportunities that didn’t pan out, and we were down by only one point.

I was racing to shut down a breakaway attack on our goal, and somehow I jammed my heel hard into the turf. Something popped, and I felt pain; I took myself out of the game.

Without exception, my first thought after ouch is, How will this affect my golf game? In fact, part of my reluctance to play soccer at all is the growing certainty that a soccer-related injury will sideline me from golf (I’ve seen other players break bones, and pull muscles. One of my indoor teammates dislocated his shoulder and another detached his Achilles tendon.)

If I get injured in the winter, I have time to heal before golf season starts. If I get injured in the spring, summer, or fall, I may miss several weeks of golf. I’d be sad. It looks as though my soccer season has ended.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 07-03-2008

For my wife’s OM team, the stands, uprights, and cross-bars to hold scenery; the scenery itself; props; and costumes fill a surprisingly small area of the playroom floor.  The debris from the construction effort spreads into the bathroom, the adjacent billiards room, and the garage.  So far, this year’s team has avoided serious injury despite their extensive use of my cutting and power tools.  Judging from the weekly noise, there’s no doubt they had fun.

Odyssey Of The Mind (OM) is very popular in central Pennsylvania. It is a program in which teams of up to seven kids compete against other teams in creative problem solving. A team chooses a challenge from the selections prepared for the year’s competition. The problem comes with a detailed set of rules that describe what constitutes a winning solution: Use seven bamboo chopsticks to build a structure that can hold at least six tons while moving five miles per hour under its own power on a gym floor. Or: train some type of domesticated animal to reenact the signing of the declaration of independence using ink and paper manufactured from raw materials during the presentation. Or: put on a play in which scenes change three times, costumes change once, and at least one character’s actions violate our understanding of the space-time continuum. (I had to summarize; the rules usually cover many pages.)

Over the course of fifteen months, a team interprets the rules; yells a lot; cuts, builds, and paints stuff; screams and shouts; writes a script; and makes a lot of random noise. Then they attend a regional competition at which they set up their creations and perform. The roles of adults in all this? Hands off. Adults are involved to keep kids from hurting each other, and to apply antibiotic ointment when it’s needed. Adults also buy supplies, provide snacks, run taxi service, and serve as judges during the competition.

My kids participate on OM teams, and they obviously have a blast. My wife also participates in OM; she organizes all the teams in Lewisburg. More than that, she is the parent “coach” of one of my kids’ teams. This means that for fifteen months each year (OK, it’s closer to four months) my basement is the epicenter of a catastrophic seismic OM event.

This season’s regional competition is tomorrow (OM is a winter sport). I look forward to seeing the teams perform; the kids are very creative, and the competition is always fun. At the same time, I make no secret of my enthusiasm for my wife’s team to get its stuff out of my basement: The place is a heap. No doubt thousands of parents world-wide will get the same satisfactions from tomorrow’s regional events.

Learn more about OM at their web site: Odyssey of the Mind

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