Detroit (Finally) Moves On

The Packard Motor Company buildings in Detroit were abandoned in 1958, when Packard went out of business. In the decades since then, the buildings on the colossal 40-acre site have been left vacant and have fallen into increasing disrepair, becoming a kind of iconic reminder of how far the Motor City has fallen from its past glory days. If you’ve visited Detroit, as we did when Russell lived there, you may have even driven past the Packard buildings and other derelict Detroit buildings, marveled at the tangible decay, and shaken your head at the waste of all of the effort and assets that went into constructing those buildings that are now crumbling into dust.

Now Detroit has finally begun process of demolishing the Packard buildings, as part of an effort to rid the city of what the linked article aptly describes as “ruin porn”–the many abandoned, deteriorating buildings in the area that show how a once-mighty city was brought to its knees. But as with anything in Detroit, it has been a difficult process. A Peruvian developer bought the 3.5 million square foot site for $405,000 in 2013 but didn’t live up to promises to develop it; more recently, he’s ignored court orders to demolish the buildings due to obvious safety concerns. As a result, the city has begun the demolition itself and plans to present the bill for the work to the developer.

Detroit’s mayor says that at least part of the Packard site will be used for future development. But even if development doesn’t happen for years, demolishing the Packard buildings is a big step in the right direction for Detroit, in my view. If, like me, you think there is merit to the “broken windows” theory, which posits that seeing unrepaired broken windows sends a strong message of lawlessness and societal decay, the Packard plants have been broken windows writ large for too long, sending a dispiriting message to the people of the Motor City. I think removing this old eyesore will help Detroit to move forward.

Battery Quest

The other day we needed AAA batteries for one of our TV remotes (we’ve got three of them, which raises its own set of questions). Could our household actually have two fully charged AAA batteries that we could use? There was only one way to tell. I set my jaw, adopted a look of grim determination, and moved cautiously yet deliberately to the “messy drawer” in our kitchen–which also could be called the battery graveyard.

Yes, there are batteries in the messy drawer. Unfortunately, they are the kind that are not used to power any known modern devices. Helpfully, we’ve got a pristine pack of four C batteries that were copyrighted in 2007, or an unopened 9-volt battery, copyright 2013. Those dates mean we’ve lugged them from place to place as we’ve moved, for no rational reason other than the feeling that you shouldn’t throw out an unused pack of batteries, even if you have no earthly idea how they might be used or whether you will ever, for the remainder of your natural life, own something that might conceivably be powered by them.

Then there are the rogue batteries that are rolling around in the kitchen messy drawer. Typically, they are AA batteries, which are the most used type in our household. Are they good or are they bad? That is the question. The only certainty about a battery charge comes if the battery remains in its original packaging. Once a AA battery starts roaming free in the drawer, you just don’t know for sure. And the impulse to not throw away batteries until you are certain they are bad–typically, when they’ve exploded and start leaking that white, powdery crud–means that some of the rogue batteries might be bad. As a result, you’ll be doing the battery shuffle, using your fingernails as functional tools and putting in and removing random batteries until you find a combination that actually powers the device.

Of course, my search for working AAA batteries came up empty, and I ended up going to the nearby convenience store for a pack of 5 AAA batteries to add to the collection in the messy drawer. That’s the seemingly inevitable result of any battery quest.

Singing The Sad-Eyed First Game Blues

The first full day of the NFL season is here. For fans of the Cleveland Browns, like me, that means bracing yourself for another first-game loss to kick off the season. Every such loss, and every new season of failure, moves this once-storied franchise farther away from the glory days of Otto Graham, Jimmy Brown, Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar, and other members of gritty, always competitive teams. Browns fans hope for the best, but fully expect the worst, because we’ve been so conditioned by futility we can’t have confidence about anything. And every year, we inevitably find ourselves singing the sad-eyed first game blues.

The Browns’ opening day record since they returned to the NFL in 1999 is mind-boggling. Their ineptitude in the first game is historic; no other NFL team even comes close. The Browns are a seemingly impossible 1-21-1. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll do so for as long as first-game losses continue to mount, because perhaps nothing better captures the sense of doom and defeat that Browns fans must endure. You would think that, over a period of more than two decades, a favorable bounce or some other good break might turn the tide in a game, but it never happens. We Browns fans are trapped in a repeating loop of disaster, absorbing gut punch after gut punch, and there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

How will the Browns fare this season? Preseason tells us nothing, because most of the Browns’ best players didn’t play a snap. That’s makes it hard to draw any conclusions– which might be a good thing, because the team that did play looked pretty mediocre. I feel like the Browns have some talent, but I know from past experience that dumb plays, stupid penalties, and freakish occurrences have caused losses that shouldn’t have happened. The fact that the Browns will play their first game against their former quarterback Baker Mayfield also produces the kind of story line that seems tailor-made for another dismal Browns loss.

And yet . . . I continue to hope. Being a Browns fan is embedded deep in the core fibers of my being, and I just can’t help myself. I’m like the guy in the old joke who repeatedly slams his forehead into a wall, and when someone asks him why he is doing it, he says: “Because it feels so good when I stop.” Maybe, just maybe, this is the year it will stop.

Halves, Wholes, And Rounding

Recently I have been trying to lose a few pounds and get down to an aspirational target weight. As an inevitable part of that process, I have left the happy land of whole numbers and entered the territory of halves, wholes, and rounding.

Whole numbers are great and, for the vast majority of purposes, are perfectly adequate and indeed preferable. The whole concept of “rounding” basically was developed solely to avoid those confusing and inconvenient fractions when calculating paychecks or the cost of a single gallon of milk. But there are times when more precision clearly is needed, if only for purposes of positive self-image, and the fractional numbers thus must enter the equation. The two obvious instances are when you are focused on weight and age. (Quarters and halves also come in handy when you are telling the time, of course.)

Every child starts out with their parents measuring their age in weeks, then in months, then in half years. And virtually as soon as the kid develops sufficient speech skills, accounting for those half years become very important. The child realizes that age is associated with positive attributes–like being able to stay up later–and insists that the half year be noted when their age is given. They are four-and-a-half, not just four. Later, when adulthood is achieved and moving up in age isn’t viewed quite so positively, those half-years are discarded and we are perfectly content to stick with our age at the last birthday until the next birthday rolls around.

When losing weight is at issue, the mental calculation is is the opposite. The downward movement of a quarter pound or a half pound on the scale is a crucially important milestone to be celebrated as an incentive to continue whatever you’ve been doing to shed the weight. Trim supermodels and Hollywood stars presumably don’t do this. But when losing weight is your goal and personal resolve is a key part of the process, you think of your weight in precise half and quarter pounds, with no upward rounding permitted.

Downward rounding, on the other hand, is perfectly appropriate.

The Morning Cup Choices

Every morning, I make a pot of medium-strong coffee to start the day. But making the coffee is only the first step in the coffee consumption process. Next, I must choose a coffee cup to hold that precious, energizing black gold. That means I have to really get my sleep-addled brain working and make considered, deliberate choices from an array of distinct options that are available.

Our smallest cup, at the right above, is a narrow, somewhat dainty cup that probably holds about half as much coffee as you would get if you filled the lobster cup on the other end of the line. Its smaller exposed surface area means your coffee will stay fractionally warmer if you are taking your time with your morning joe. Not surprisingly, I never choose this one.

Lately I’ve been going with the cup that is next in line. It’s thicker than the white one, which means it has a good heft as you lift it to your lips, it has a cool bicycle drawing on the front, and it was a gift from my mentees. It has more exposed surface area and is a bit larger, but still doesn’t deliver an overwhelming amount of coffee. I can slug down all of the coffee in this cup when it is still hot and head back for more–which I always do.

From there we move to the Harbor Cafe cup, which (as the name indicates) is your standard restaurant coffee cup, slightly larger than the preceding cups and with still more surface area. This is a good cup to choose if you want to drink a fulsome amount of coffee quickly and feel the heat of the coffee radiating through the thin sides of the cup.

From there, we really move from cup to mug territory, with choices that provide increasingly colossal amounts of coffee and surface areas that are approximately birdbath sized. The lobster mug at the end is enormous, and the coffee it holds cools off quickly. The lobster mug is the right choice when you are going to have a busy day and you need to gulp down a lot of hot, black, highly caffeinated liquid into your system as quickly as possible. It’s not a cup for those who dawdle over their java, because they are going to end up with a cup of unsatisfyingly cold coffee, No, the lobster mug sends your brain a message: sleep has ended, a busy day has begun, and you’d better pick up the pace in all things.

One Pillow, Two Pillow

Lately I’ve been experimenting with different pillow combinations, trying to find just the right form of headrest for a good night’s sleep.

My pillow use history has been pretty vanilla, frankly. I started off my cognizant life with one pillow, because I’m sure my parents would never have thought of their kids having more than one on their beds. I stuck with one pillow through college, but at some point–I’m not sure exactly when–the notion that there could be more than one pillow per person swept the nation, like disco during the ’70s or big hair during the ’80s, and we ended up with multiple pillows on the bed. At that point, the question was squarely presented: do you continue with one pillow, or try multiple pillows?

I quickly decided that the choice boiled down to one pillow versus two pillows; more than two pillows seemed over the top and was uncomfortable, besides. I initially found it hard to get comfortable with two pillows, so I continued on the one-pillow track. This meant that, when traveling, I had to hurl many pillows off the bed in every hotel, because in hotels the beds sprout pillows like the ground sprouts mushrooms after a spring rainstorm. But recently, after long hours of driving, I rolled into a hotel late at night, exhausted, pretty much collapsed onto a bed with two pillows, and got a good, if abbreviated, night’s sleep–which made me think I should give two pillows a try, again.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. One pillow is what I’m used to, and seems to provide all of the head support I need. Two pillows, however, afford the luxury of quantity, and therefore provide more options you can flip to get to the cool side on a warm summer night. Two pillows, though, can fall into disarray during nocturnal movements, leaving you with a crick in your neck in the morning. On the other hand, one pillow can develop that dent in the middle that requires you to bunch up the pillow in a futile attempt to provide additional support.

One pillow, two pillow? It sounds like a Dr. Seuss book, but the experiment continues.

In Search Of . . . Keys And Cellphones

Are you one of those people who constantly misplaces your keys, your cell phone, or other items, and then spends a lot of time searching for them? Do you regularly call your own cell phone, hoping that the ring or buzz will help you to find it? Are you to the point where you feel like the quest for your keys and cell phone should be featured on an episode of In Search Of . . . , as if they were as tantalizing as the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs?

An article from the U.K. offers some tips from a psychologist and well-being practitioner about how to stop the constant searching. (You’ll know the article is from the U.K. because it uses delightfully weird U.K.isms like “causing aggro” and “flatmates.”) The expert makes a lot of suggestions, from the very fundamental (get more sleep, because lack of sleep contributes to forgetfulness) to the very specific (consider putting a brightly colored ribbon on your keys to make it easier to find them) to the very technical (use key tags and find my phone apps), coupled with some reassurance (just because you regularly misplace your keys and your cellphone doesn’t mean you’re on the verge of dementia).

The best suggestion, in my view, is to give your cellphone and your keys a designated “home” and make sure that you always put them there, until you’ve formed an ingrained habit that becomes second nature. I always put my phone and my keys in the same place and never have to worry about searching for them. Of course, being such a creature of habit might make you worry about becoming too anal–but that’s better than fruitlessly searching for your keys and phone every morning.

Suggested Temptation

On this morning’s walk Betty and I stopped by the waterside parking lot below one of the shops in Stonington. I love the hand-lettered “Do Not Throw Rocks” sign there, perched as it is at the end of a field of rocks the size of a baby’s fist, with a beautiful stretch of water just ahead and lots of targets to measure the strength of your throwing arm. In short, it’s just about perfect stone-tossing territory.

I wonder how many kids, and adults, walk up to admire the scenery, see the sign, think “you know, that’s not a bad idea,” and glance around furtively to see if the coast is clear for one granite throw? Even though no one was around, I managed to resist temptation.

Web Season

It’s spiderweb season in Stonington, and our decks–with their posts, and fencing, and many corners, and other nooks and crannies–are prime web-building grounds for our spidery friends. On damp mornings, like yesterday, the water molecules cling to the webs and create some outdoor art that has a delicate beauty and also the impressive tensile strength to bear many times its weight in water.

My attitude about spiderwebs has changed since my childhood. I used to take sticks and pull them down whenever I encountered one. Reading Charlotte’s Web helped to change that attitude, and I also realized that it didn’t make much sense for someone who, from time to time over the years, has been called “Webbie” by some friends. I’ve come to understand that spiders and their webs perform a valuable service for us, in ridding our neck of the world of the annoying, buzzing housefly. And you can’t help but admire the industriousness of spiders as they build and repair their elaborate webs and then wait patiently for their prey.

On misty mornings I’ll make the rounds, taking a look to see what the spiders have been up to and admire their handiwork, like the effort above on our upper deck. Care must be taken, however, to avoid inadvertently getting a face full of webbing.

A Weeding Weekend

Stonington, Maine is a great growing climate. Plants seem to thrive here, but unfortunately that includes weeds—lots and lots of weeds. So when I returned after a two-and-a-half month absence, I found on the positive side that my lupines had grown to colossal sizes, but weeds had invaded all the beds and were on the verge of overwhelming our plantings. The photo above is an example of just how overgrown things had become.

So this past weekend featured a lot of weeding, to try to get the growth under control. I dug out countless broadleaf weeds, yanked out creeping vines, chopped back encroaching chokecherry trees, and pulled out unwanted grass. My favorite weed to remove, whose name is unknown to me, has a weird hollow stem, grows rapidly, and has a purple flower on top and very shallow roots. You can extract it with a gentle tug, and it is satisfying to then fling it onto the weed pile.

By the end of the weekend, as the photo below shows, I had got things back to about where they were when I last left in May. In the never-ending War of the Weeds, that’s about all you can hope for.

Naming Names

I’ve worn glasses since I was a first-grader, so you think I’d know everything there is to know about them—but I don’t. In fact, I don’t even know the proper names of different parts of my glasses.

This became relevant for the first time recently when the little plastic parts of my glasses that hold them against each side of your nose somehow broke off. That’s never happened before, and it’s hard to see how it happened now. It’s not like the act of donning and doffing your glasses applies tremendous torque to the nose bone area that would cause this kind of extraordinary glasses injury. But somehow those pieces sheared off, and I need to get the glasses fixed. And when I call my optometrist to schedule a repair visit, I’d prefer to name names rather than vaguely talking about “those little plastic parts that brace the glasses against both sides of your nose.”

For the record, they are apparently called “nose pads,” and the metal pieces that hold them are called “pad arms.” And here’s something weird- the parts of your glasses that go back over your ears are called “temples,” and the parts that rest on your ears are called “temple tips.”

So now I can tell the eye doctor I’ve had a nose pad failure, and sound like I’ve done my homework. But I wonder: how many other actual names of common household object are unknown to me? Like, what is the proper name for the part of a clothes hangar that loops over the bar in your closet?

A Mean-Spirited Obituary, Or A Cathartic Moment (II)?

I’ve written before — here, and here — about incredibly negative obituaries that have been written about some people. Harsh and unforgiving obituaries are apparently so commonplace that somebody on the internet actually prepared a “top five” list of the most “savage” obituaries, which you can find here. And today a friend shared another pitiless obituary blast that appeared recently in the Jacksonville newspaper.

It really makes you wonder how many terrible people are out there–people so awful that their survivors can’t summon a kind word to say about them. But I’ve always thought that obituaries are for the living, and not for the dead. I hope the survivors who wrote these obituaries feel better for doing so, because it sounds like they’ve been through hell already.

Now, I think I’ll try to find a way to be nice to my kids.

Outdoor Laps

I’ve been at meetings at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado over the past few days. It’s a very fine facility, with great amenities and beautiful grounds. It has one particular feature that I’ve enjoyed during my brief visit: an outdoor walkway that runs in a continuous loop around the pond and the swimming pool on the grounds. In short, you can do laps if you want. Every day I’ve joined other guests in doing laps around the grounds.

On the Broadmoor walking loop, you can easily distinguish the casual strollers from the ardent exercisers. The strollers are taking their time, smiling, and enjoying the scenery; the exercisers–some of whom wear headbands, by the way–have a much more serious expression on their faces and are moving at a faster clip, often weaving around other walkers and checking their watches with a dissatisfied huffiness, as if the mere fact that they have to take slight detours around other pedestrians could ruin their workouts. I’d like to think I fall somewhere in between those groups on the lap-walking spectrum.

I’ve become a dedicated treadmiller when I’m at home, but I’ve enjoyed doing some outdoor walking during my visit here. Treadmills offer certain advantages, like keeping you at a steady pace and allowing you to keep track of calories burned and miles covered, but walking outside, taking deep gulps of fresh air and enjoying beautiful scenery, obviously offers its own special advantages.

Finding Roots In Mazara Del Vallo

Mazara del Vallo is a town on the southwest tip of Sicily. It is a vibrant coastal community that is one of the larger cities in Sicily, with pretty areas like the church vista shown above. When we visited yesterday, however, we weren’t in town to sightsee, but to find some touchstones of the family history of the Sicilian CEO (aka Chuck Pisciotta). Like many Americans, the CEO’s roots trace back to Italy and Sicily.

Our Mission to Mazara had four goals: to find the birthplace of the CEO’s father, to find city hall, where the CEO’s grandfather is listed on a roster of the town’s mayors, and to find the burial sites of the CEO’s grandmother and grandfather. We quickly accomplished our first objective. We knew the building where the CEO’s father was born had been sold by the family decades ago and been converted to a restaurant called the Cafe Garibaldi. We found it, and that is the CEO and his lovely wife, the Landscape Artist, in the photo above in front of the former family homestead. Unfortunately, finding city hall was surprisingly elusive, and we spent hours wandering the central area of town, being given conflicting directions by Google Maps and friendly locals and fruitlessly searching for the right building. After repeated failures, we decided to cross City Hall off the list and head to the cemetery.

The Mazara town cemetery is some distance from the town center and in an interesting place in its own right. It’s enormous—not a surprise in a town that has been in existence for hundreds of years—and includes in-ground burial plots, family burial chapels, and vaults set into long walls, like the ones shown above. Many of the vaults include pictures of the deceased whose remains are inside, as shown in the photo above. We were told that the use of photos is common in Sicilian and Italian cemeteries.

Each wall contains hundreds of burial vaults, and there were dozens of rows of walls, as shown in the photos above and below. When we arrived, we had no idea where the vaults for the CEO’s nonno and nonna were located, and trying to find the right vault in the array of thousands of potential locations seemed like a hopeless task.

Fortunately, the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were able to enlist the help of one of the cemetery caretakers and examine ledgers in a storage area, where they found information about the location of Giulio Pisciotta, the CEO’s grandfather. That is the CEO posed next to the vault in the photo below. Regrettably, we could not locate the vault for the CEO’s nonna, because we didn’t have precise information about her date of death. Still, we accomplished two of our four tasks, and any baseball player will tell you that a .500 average is pretty darned good.

But this day of roots celebration was not over. The CEO had mentioned to the driver who picked us up at the airport on our arrival in Sicily that he would be visiting Mazara del Vallo to find these family connections. By fortunate coincidence, the driver’s parents have a house in town, near one of the nice beaches. Amazingly, the driver’s parents, who we had never met, invited our entire party to dinner as their home. When we arrived last night we were treated to a magical and unforgettable evening by the parents and two of their friends. That is the energetic and outgoing friend at the head of the table in the photo below.

The parents and their friends set a long table in the courtyard and plied us with more food, wine, and beer than you can possibly imagine. Although they did not speak much English, their friendliness and warmth spoke louder than words—and the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were there to translate and break the language barrier.

The meal started with pizza, olives, cheese, shrimp, and fabulous fried sardine and rice balls, then moved to couscous—a delicious nod to the Arabic influence on Sicilian culture—with mussels, shrimp, and freshly caught branzino, which the friend proudly displayed in the photo above. You dole out the couscous, which our hosts dished out liberally, ladle on some tasty broth, and then add the fish on top. It was excellent.

And the hits kept coming, and coming. After the couscous, we had some of the famous red shrimp that had been caught that morning in the waters surrounding Mazara del Vallo, which had been grilled and delicately spiced. Then it was on to fresh cherries—to keep the digestive processes going, the friend explained—and finally a huge platter of cannoli, shown in the photo below.

We munched on the cannoli, which were crisp and not too sweet, with cherries at each end. And just when we thought the parade of fantastic food had finally stopped, our hosts brought out a gelato cake made especially for the Sicilian CEO, as shown in the photo below. Our hosts explained that the cool and creamy gelato would further assist our bellies in processing the enormous meal. The gelato cake was, of course, delicious.

Our hosts also brought out a bottle of champagne, which the CEO deftly opened, and we toasted our meal and our new friends. As I drank my glass of champagne I reflected with amazement on the incredible generosity of these fine people, who invited a throng of previously unknown people who could not speak their language to their home, invested the time and money to prepare a magnificent meal with a special personalized gelato cake, and fed us until we were full to bursting. And I emphasize, again, that before last night none of us had ever met our hosts. It was an astonishing, awesome display of open-hearted kindness and magnanimity.

We should have known, however, that our hosts weren’t quite done. They insisted that the CEO board the back of a rickshaw-like bicycle for a ride around the courtyard. As the evening ended we stood in the gloaming, exchanging hugs and kisses and cheek-to-cheek goodbyes with our newfound friends, thanking them for an evening will live all long remember. What an extraordinary night!

Friend Of Old Flowers

We had some friends over last Saturday night for a raucous evening. Kish bought some flower arrangements for the occasion. Last Sunday, I moved the flowers from the dining room table to the kitchen island, just above the sink, so I can enjoy their pretty colors from my seat at the island, which is my home workspace.

As the days have passed, however, some of the flowers have sadly started to droop and lose their petals, as shown in the photo above. Other flowers, however, seem to be hardier and were still hanging in there. So this morning I decided to conduct some triage on the floral arrangements by carefully removing some of the wilted and dead plants, repositioning others, and emptying their vases of the old water and refilling them with fresh, cool water. The result are shown below.

I’m not sure this will work, but I’m hoping to get a few more days of enjoyment from the flowers before they go into the wastebasket. If that happens, the investment of time in helping some old flowers display their colors for just a short while longer will be worth it.