Cuba

We were in a windowless seat, so we had no view of Cuba as the plane descended. Our first impression was when we deplaned. The terminal looked worn, which we soon learned was the ubiquitous state of all buildings in this island nation. And worn is being polite.

The second impression was expected but still romantic: all the 1950’s automobiles, though they too looked worn, as they should be. The third impression was olfactory. Those old cars spew noxious fumes. It was a smell I remembered from childhood, though I don’t think it was ever this bad, even 60 years ago. The smell would be with us all five days we were here. It was a smell you could see emanating from the tailpipes. Our taxi driver from the airport quickly closed my window. Perhaps he was just showing off the air conditioning the old Chevy had. An aftermarket system, to be sure, it occupied most of the leg room in the front seat.

The price of the ride to old Havana where we were staying was $30 per car. We needed two cabs. Karla and I were joined by Sarah, whose husband Paul was taking a more daring route to Cuba from Tampa Bay, along with his brother Mark. Mark’s wife Paula and their middle child Charlotte were sharing the cab.

It’s impossible to ignore the state of the capital. Buildings were far passed their glory years. Many were inhabitable. Others merely looked so. But behind the cracked plaster and faded paint, people had shelter and often an interior that belied the exterior. Flat screen televisions sometimes were mounted on the walls and the furniture and everything looked much better than the outside.

We rolled up to Casa Una and upon exiting the taxi confronted another smell: raw sewage. It was concentrated in front of our house and didn’t stray far from the street. But it was unmistakably there and would remain so for the entire trip.

We climbed a marble staircase to the second floor of the house. With 20-foot ceilings throughout and well-kept dark wicker furniture, it looked far better than the exterior of most of our neighbors’ homes. There were tile floors throughout with similar but not always matching tiles. The beds were clean and sharply made, so much so that each night crawling into bed was like peeling saran wrap off a watermelon. My feet would fit only sideways at first until I worked the covers for a little room.

The bathrooms, always a crap shoot in foreign countries (no pun intended), looked promising. When Karla turned on the faucet the water hesitated a few seconds as if reluctant to come out. But she said it eventually worked fine, only to discover later that the water she had was what was left in the pipes. We soon learned that water was not a given. We called the host of our Airbnb, Navi, and he apologized and ensured us that we’d have water within an hour or two. Was he hoping for rain?

Navi is a dapper man, always wearing a straw hat, deck shoes with no socks and a sport coat, even if he also wears shorts. He welcomed us heartily and suggested we take a trip outside the city the next day, Thursday, to visit Vinales where we would tour a tobacco factory. He was proud of Casa Una and made sure we noticed the wall of photographs, most of which included young man with  a narrow chin and doleful eyes, sometimes with a camera in his hand. Many of them were with Fidel Castro. Navi’s uncle apparently was something of a documentarian of the revolution. Other photos of him were more recent. He is still alive. I would have loved to meet him.

The 6:30 am flight from the Tampa Bay was less than an hour. So despite the immigration check, which was no worse and maybe faster than that I’ve experienced in the U.S, we had a full day ahead of us, though the foreign exchange procedure tried to use most of it. There was one woman exchanging currency and another woman in a separate booth who seemed to count each pile of money she was in charge of six times. Then she would walk out of the booth and return to count it again. Finally she opened her window and then a third woman showed up. We finally got our CUC’s (which differ from CUP’s that are never to be accepted by unsuspecting tourists). We were on our way.

The five of us had previously planned a walking tour of “old Havana.” It would be another day at least before Paul, Paula’s husband Mark and the rest of the crew would arrive. They and three others were sailing a boat from St. Pete to Havana, a revival of a race that began in the 1930’s until it was interrupted by the socialist revolution in 1959. With the thaw in relations with Cuba initiated by former President Obama, the race was being revived.

That gave me and my harem of four (as a couple of Havana’s macho Senors would point out) time to wander…and wonder. Are the people here feeling deprived? The physical façade is beyond worn. Many of the streets are beyond pockmarked. Holes in the streets and sidewalks are enough to leave you with a ankle to hip cast. The sidewalks, such as they are in the old part of the city, cannot be navigated without a keen eye. Nowhere are they smooth for more than a few feet. They undulate and sport trip hazards at every step. And unlike in the U.S., there is no attempt to warn walkers. Even on dark streets, you traverse at your own risk.

Most folks walk in the side streets, and despite the obstacles and challenges, seem to have inner sonars that keep things moving. Cars, single cyclists and bike-taxis seem to have the right of way. Your warning may be a lightly touched horn, a bell or a whistle that’s easy to miss. Some of the mopeds must be electric because they are silent. Their drivers depend on the whistle. But it is remarkable that during our stay we never saw an accident, even a close call. This, despite an apparent shortage of Pare, or stop signs, at most intersections. Pedestrians walk like cyclists ride in a pack, never making a sudden sideways move. Which is fortunate as motorists don’t slow down much. And their passing tolerance is minimal. Swerve even a few inches and you’re either on the hood of the car or in the lap of a taxi pedaler.

Dogs and cats share the walkways. None have collars, so I assume they are strays. They use the streets as you would expect, which adds another obstacle to avoid. They are savvy creatures and don’t necessarily look undernourished. Even the hairless dog in our neighborhood looked plump. It’s not surprising.

The first day I was struck by how dirty the streets seem to be. Mostly, it was building debris but with a fair amount of trash and garbage, which probably account for the nourished animals. Some of the holes would slow cars to less than 1 mph, hoping to avoid bottoming out.

But by Saturday morning, either I had become accustomed to it, or someone was at work overnight sweeping. Many were the residents, who used primitive brooms and dust pans and then a wet mop to make the small space in front of their house presentable. The potholes were still there and the occasional overloaded garbage dumpster, but even the overage was neatly piled next to dumpster awaiting the truck that would somehow wend its way through the narrow streets. Of course, there was no way to position the truck to pick up the dumpster. One of the sanitation crew had to maneuver the wheeled container to a position where it could be picked up.

When it came time for our Old Havana tour, the guide was a woman who looked much younger than her 42 years. She was knowledgeable and pleasant. However, even when a foreigner speaks English well, the pronunciations always strain my ears. But between the missed phrases I heard a story of a proud city whose faded physical appearance could not dim the role it played in the New World, beginning with Christopher Columbus.

Our tour ended with lunch, by which time we were all ready to eat the tour guide. The tour cost included lunch and, of course, a drink, which I came to understand is necessary to do anything in Cuba. While the Mojito seems to be the national beverage, I gravitated to other sweet drinks—daiquiris, pina coladas and marguerites. The meal was good, as I adopted the strategy of ordering whatever the tour guide ordered.

Afterwards, it was time for a nap as we awaited word of the sailors. Charlotte had a phone app that allowed us to know where they were—or more precisely where the boat was—and their position in the race. At first, they seemed to be doing well, but their position slipped and it became clear that they would not arrive Thursday night as was scheduled. Winds were almost non-existent and their strategy of taking a wide turn in hopes of grabbing the Gulf Stream wasn’t working.

Which was just as well as Casa Una had no water. Another call to the host and our night time “security guard” also became a plumber. He a climb on the roof to fix the problem.

The next day we took the suggestion of our host to go to Vinales, a two-hour trip where we would see beautiful scenery and a cigar factory. There were some nice vistas as we drove, but it was a three-hour drive and the factory was a hut where they dried the tobacco. The tour was brief but informative, with a guy making it sound as if a cigar is required to get into the mood for love. We also saw how they roll cigars. But three hours was a bit much and probably more expensive than we should have paid–$200 round trip with five of us riding in a 1955 Chevy and a $30/person lunch where we were expected to pay for the driver’s lunch, too. I’d recommend passing this up unless you could spend a day or two there as there appeared to be some nice hikes available.

Dinner was less than mediocre at a place called La Familia, if my Spanish is correct.

The next tour was the best—the Ernest Hemingway tour of his house, the fishing village where he was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea, and a few of his bar hang-outs. The guide, Reynaldo, was great. Hemingway’s house is supposedly just as he left it when he blew his brains out in an Idaho cabin. His father, brother and sister also took their own lives.

Our sailors made it there at the beginning of our third day. They were disappointed that they apparently finished 9th in their class. But they discovered that seven of the boats that came in before them were all disqualified for using their engines. They grew tired of sitting with no wind. So not only did our guys finish second, but they learned that the only boat that beat them used the same strategy of turning wide to catch the Gulf Stream.

Our last tour was a “Classic Car” tour, which I took to be a tour or exhibition of some of the many old cars you see on the Havana streets. But it was a tour in a classic car to a couple of highlights within the city, most notably Revolution Square, where Castro made his victory speech after taking control of the country in 1959. Riding in convertibles exacerbated the pollution problem. You literally inhale black smoke that lingers there. Many of these old cars are pretty loud, too, especially if they’ve been retrofitted with diesel engines.

Our Airbnb host suggested we eat dinner at La Guarida, which he described as the best and most expensive restaurant in all of Cuba. It was neither 5-star or expensive, with many entrees in the $8-15 range. It was in a most unusual setting. Walking up the steps you feel you’re entering a secret room where you’ll meet a Communist spy. The building, like so many others, looks almost inhabitable from the outside. But near the top, you enter the restaurant, which is well appointed. We were told that many of its workers also live in the building.

Restaurants and other businesses that serve tourists are among those that the government has allowed to be private enterprise. To what degree, however, is unclear. What is clear, though, is that many people there want to serve tourists as they can make a lot of money through tips, much more so than they get with their salaries. In 2011, the government also began letting people buy and sell their houses.

As I see it, there are a few tips for visiting Cuba:

  1. Learn Spanish. Few people speak English. Not knowing left me unable to enjoy the people as much as I thought I would.
  2. Exchange American dollars before you go. Get euros or Canadian dollars and then convert them to the CUP’s once you get to Cuba. That way you’ll avoid the 10% surcharge the government places on American currency.
  3. Seek out things on your own. Or at least be wary of tours and outings arranged by others there. Some of the government tours, however, were a bargain. So was the Airbnb place, though it did have its issues.
  4. Buy cigars either at the “factory” or arrange for someone there to buy them for you. Our group bought several boxes of cigars that were $60 each. In the stores, they can be three to five times that.
  5. Recognize that in many areas Cuba is still a third world country. Roads are poor and we were told that renting a car is a hassle and exposes you to “maintenance” charges, and no amount of American insurance will cover you.
  6. You’ll need a visa and Cuban health insurance before you go.
  7. We saw little evidence of crime and always felt safe. However, we were told that pick pocketing is a problem. But not violet crime. There was little police presence there, which surprised me.
  8. Old Havana is definitely a good place to book a room. It may not be the cleanest neighborhood, but it’s near most of what you’ll want to see in a 3-5-day visit. The big hotels seemed expensive. Book an Airbnb if you can.
  9. Restaurant service can be slow. We waited 30 minutes to place an order and another 45 minutes get our meals a lunch on our last day. And there are no “no smoking” sections.
  10. Be prepared to drink. Most mixed drinks cost $3-4.

 

Would I go again? Probably not unless it was a weekend trip and I learned Spanish.

How do we change hearts and minds?

In a postmortem shortly after the November elections, Harper’s writer James Marcus wrote:

“… it would be a fatal mistake to assume that every Trump supporter is a closet Klansman….if Democrats clamber up onto the higher ground of moral superiority, from which vantage point their opponents are bound to appear very small, and no more worth addressing than an ant colony, they will keep losing elections for a long time.”

Nearly two months after the election, I’m weary of the “how could this happen?” posts and the tendency to point out how out of touch with reality many voters are.

Such angst will not change anything. It’s clear we can’t shame them into supporting a progressive economic agenda. We need to urge the Democratic Party to reach out to those Trump voters who may have voted for Obama in the past or who voted for Trump out of frustration with the establishment. After all, their frustrations over the unavailability of living wage jobs, which play out not only in their vote for Trump but their increasing addiction to opiates, are similar though not identical to other disenfranchised groups Democrats usually support.

Progressives have failed to communicate how their policies would help rural and unskilled voters who no longer can find gainful employment. Not only the party needs to reach out to them, we voters need to reach out to them, and certainly that includes through social media. Whether personally or online, we’ll find plenty of Trump voters whose feet are cemented in an alternate reality. Once we see that nothing can come of engagement, we can move on. But there will be those who will engage constructively. If we (and the party) can convince them that we “feel their pain” and want to help, maybe they will not be Trump voters next time. We needn’t change the minds of all Trump voters, just a few thousands that made the difference.

I’m trying to figure out how I can make difference. There’s got to be more that posting on Facebook. Is it joining the local Democratic Party? Are there progressive groups that focus on reaching out to rural voters and dissatisfied unskilled workers? Are there Congressional members who we need to support and promote as willing to reach out to rural voters?

What can we do?

A Cyclist’s Catharsis of Walking

I had hoped that despite temperatures never seen in Florida I could ride while staying in the Rockies for the holiday season. It’s not happening. There is too much snow along the shoulders and lanes filled with sand that can destroy a bike’s paint job, to say nothing of creating a braking hazard.

So I’ve been walking almost everyday. Not hiking or trekking but walking the hills of my western neighborhood. The weather has been invigorating, mostly in the 30’s or 40’s but usually with a bright sun that keeps me warm.

I find that cold weather inverts the exercise experience from that of cycling. In the latter, in Florida certainly, I feel like I’m trying to expel the byproducts of exercise. I sweat and drink to keep cool. I’m trying to release the toxins exercising is creating, or so it seems.

Walking in cold weather it feels as if the heat I generate is plowed back into my body to not only keep warm but to fuel my systems.

And whereas in cycling I must keep my wits about me, scanning for cars, potholes and the phone-gazing pedestrian, with a walk my mind can freely wander, risking only a trip over a rock. I find a greater Zen component to walking.

I supposed walking could lead to greater clarity or insights to my world. Alas, I am as deficit in attention as I am any other times. Even walking has its limitations.

A Veteran Who Wouldn’t Be Worked Up Over Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, when everyone posts on Facebook pictures of their family’s veterans and all the commenters thank them for their service.

I posted a picture of my dad, Frank, when he was in the army in World War II. (Or as Donald Trump might say, “World War eye eye.”) I mentioned that he was one of six brothers in the war and that all were deployed overseas at the same time.

If Dad were alive and knew anything about Facebook, he might have told me to remove the post. He was not a fan of the army. In fact, he had a dim view of the military and its demands on the national budget. (I posted it mostly because Veteran’s Day is also the anniversary of Dad’s death.)

He did not enlist. In 1942 four of his brothers were already in the service. He, being the oldest, was still at home with his brother Wilbur, or Jack as he was commonly called. My dad had worked from the time he was about 12, as his dad was laid off at age 50 and never worked again, though I’m not sure if that was laziness or a medical issue. Jack worked, too, of course.

Then Jack received his draft notice. He and my dad went to the recruiting office. Dad told them that Jack made more money than he did, so if they wouldn’t mind, would they take him and let Jack stay home to provide for his parents? They said sure. Dad joined, and then a few weeks later, they drafted Jack.

That’s only one reason my dad didn’t like the armed services. Even though he actually saw little action, he didn’t like the atmosphere and wasn’t a big rah-rah guy who flew the flag when it wasn’t needed.

He saw most gestures of patriotism as phony. His view of the military degraded further with the Vietnam War, when he thought, as turned out to be true, that the military brass was lying to the American people about how the war was going. He didn’t dislike the boys on the front lines; he felt for them. And he certainly had nothing against veterans, nor resented their benefits. In fact, to his utter amazement, he received a benefit of about $20 a month for the rest of his life because he was partially disabled: He had acne that may have gotten worse in the army. It reinforced to him the idea that the military didn’t understand priorities and didn’t know what it was doing. It was part of its wasteful spending.

When I was a kid 60 years ago, people didn’t make a big deal of veterans. They all served together—taking six kids from one family wasn’t common but many families had more than one sibling serving. They did it because they had to. That was my dad’s take. Sure, Germany was an existential threat, but he probably would have avoided the service if he could. And veterans, they still put their pants on one leg at a time like most folks.

As a backlash to the misguided disrespect that soldiers received during the Vietnam War, everyone now wants to thank veterans for their service. He probably wouldn’t have a problem with that. But I’m sure he would have bristled at the 7th inning stretches in baseball that now often include a special salute to a small number of veteran guests of honor. Hell, he could never understand why we sing the national anthem before a baseball game.

(People think it was done since Francis Scott Key wrote in it 1814—even before baseball was invented. Maybe it was sung at archery matches. In fact, the Star Spangled Banner tradition at baseball games started in 1918 when the band spontaneously played it, according to one source, as the country was still at war. It didn’t become the national anthem until 1931. And it wasn’t played while football players were on the field until 2009.)

And I’m quite sure he would have railed against the idea that we should take care of our wounded veterans, but it’s all right if poor folks die because they can’t afford to pay for healthcare.

My dad would likely remind us that unlike the veterans of his day, there’s a dwindling number who were conscripted. Most active duty service men and women today volunteered to be in the service. And maybe he would say that a good number of veterans join not because they want to fight to the death in defense of their country. They need a job. And one that gives them three squares a day and a roof over their head is a lot better than they might otherwise have in today’s economy.

We’re all in this together, he might say. That’s great if you choose to join the military. When you’re there, you rarely have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. He’ll gladly pay for that. And he’ll pay for your benefits. But not to the exclusion of the health and welfare needs of all our citizens.

Maybe he would say that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.

Lies, Damn Lies and Exit Polls

Some reporters live for numbers and calculate the horse race. Literally, that seems to be their job at newspapers. One is Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post. Part of his directive (meaning I blame not him but his editors) is to declare “winners and losers” and to provide interpretation on numbers.

This story is one where his interpretations are, for the most part, over-hyped. A more precise way of saying it is that he’s wrong and provides conclusions that cannot be supported, though to his credit, he warns that drawing conclusions based on a small sample set is dicey. Which makes one ask, then why do it? To wit, (Numerals track the issues Cillizza raised.)

  1. Cillizza says that Reagan and Romney won the white vote by 20 points. Then he breathlessly adds that Trump’s margin was a “record”: “On Tuesday, Trump one-upped them both — literally. He won the white vote 58 percent to 37 percent.” That’s 21%, well within the margin of error (4%), meaning that Trump may have gotten a few percentage points less than the R&R boys. Why couldn’t Cillizza say, Trump matched those previous margins?
  1. Then Cillizza points out that there wasn’t an increase in women voters.

Women made up 52 percent of the overall electorate in 2016 — down from 53 percent in 2012. And Hillary Clinton’s 12-point margin over Trump among women was pretty darn close to the 11-point win among women that Obama claimed over Romney four years ago.

So it was a “record” when Trump won maybe one percent more of white voters, but when Clinton won one percent more of the women’s vote, it was “darn close.” Again, margin of error for both surveys (I’m assuming 2012 had the same margin of error) was 4%.

  1. Cillizza tells us there was no surge of Latino votes. “In 2012, Hispanics made up 10 percent of the overall electorate. That bumped up, marginally, to 11 percent in 2016.” That one percent increase is now “marginal.”
  1. Later in the piece we learn that Trump outperformed Romney with evangelicals, 81% to 78%. Four percent margin of error means Romney could have had 82% and Trump 77%.
  1. Cillizza argues that Trump didn’t bring new voters to the table.

Just 10 percent of voters said that the 2016 election was their first time voting. Of that group, Clinton won 56 percent to 40 percent over Trump. Of course, new voters often overlap with younger voters who are eligible to vote for the first time; Clinton won among 18- to 24-year-olds by 21 points.

What we don’t know: How many new voters were first time eligible voters? Maybe only 2%. Of the other 8%, how many voted for Trump vs. Clinton? We don’t know, so this is metric is meaningless.

  1. Cillizza thinks “wanting change” trumped “right experience.”

Provided with four candidate qualities and asked which mattered most to their vote, almost 4 in 10 (39 percent) said a candidate who “can bring needed change.” (A candidate who “has the right experience” was the second most important character trait.)

What’s wrong with this? One thing is we don’t know is where he got the 39% figure. It is not in the poll data he cites, which is here. Secondly, he doesn’t tell us the figure for “right experience.” Was it 38% and therefore well within the margin of error?

  1. Perhaps this startles Cillizza most: Voters didn’t think Clinton won all three debates as clearly as Cillizza did. Count me among them.

Finally, I must remind you: These are exit polls. Which are not very reliable.

Some foolish journalists might write entire posts that assume that the black share of the electorate was 15 percent in Ohio. In reality, the exit polls just aren’t precise enough to justify making distinctions between an electorate that’s 15 percent black and, say, 13 percent black.

Let’s say, as the talking heads often do, we’ll just leave it there.

Trump’s legions

It’s very quiet at our house. Karla and I don’t know what to say to one another. We are devastated and depressed.

There is more than Trump’s victory to be depressed about. It is widely assumed that time and demographics are on the Democrats’ side. The thought is that the shrinking proportions of white voters bodes well for the assembled minorities with somewhat liberal tendencies. But this election proved the impotence of the white voter is still in the future. And it may be a distant future.

After all, our voting turnout is still embarrassingly low. The white working class may be a shrinking subset of voters, but there are a lot them that don’t vote. Trump proved what can happen when they are energized to vote.

And there are still more of them who didn’t vote this year. Over the past three presidential elections a little less than 60% of working class whites voted, 40% did not. That means if a candidate can propel even a small percentage of those non-voter to the polls and win them handily, the rainbow coalition is in danger, even if the Democrat hits his or her numbers..

Which is exactly what Trump may have done. Early estimates are that voter turnout was near a record, up 4.7% over the last presidential race, according to USA Today or was lower than expected, according to unreliable exit polls. So even as that white working class demographic, which is also older, dies off, there are still more non-voters to attract to the polls.

And those angry working class white voters will be with us for a while. As the old ones die off, there will be new ones to take their place, as the underemployed working class continues to grow.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Many of my neighbors across my part of town sign up for Nextdoor Neighbor, an app that allows residents to exchange messages–about contractor or doctor recommendations, to report a loss dog, or to offer items for sale–or free.

It’s that last part that got me to thinking: If people have end tables, nightstands and other assorted “stuff,” as George Carlin would say, to give away, maybe some folks have old bikes they’d want to part with.

It’s a hassle to rent bikes for friends who come into town, and I had just cleared a spot in my garage that looked naked. I could easily imagine a few bikes hanging there.

So I posted that I would be happy to re-purpose old bikes folks didn’t want anymore. I immediately got a few responses. In one day I picked up four bikes.

A big beach cruiser had been sitting outside under a shed for years, so the chain was rusted. One was just tuned but the lady said she wanted a racing bike instead. And another woman had two she didn’t ride anymore.

One bike was in great shape but very small and missing a front wheel. I would donate it to the Free Clinic, where our bike club member Patrick Ruta fixes bikes for those who need them to get to work or run errands but can’t afford to buy one.

My "re-purposed" bikes.The other three you see here. One needed a shifter cable. (I learned how to change one of a Shimano Revoshift shifter.) Another needed a rim strip and a tube. One just needed to be cleaned up and lubed.

Last night my wife said, “Let’s take a couple for a spin.” A few blocks away she said, “This is great. Nice ride.” Because I had bought her a new townie bike a few months ago, she said, “Gee, we didn’t need to spend money for a new bike. This is great.”

Sure, I thought. Can you imagine if I had said to her, “I know I have an $8,000 bike, but I’m going to find you a hand-me-down that no one wants”?

No, these bikes are for visitors and for me to ride downtown and not be heart broken if it gets stolen.

You may have noticed that they are all “step-over” frames, what we used to call “girls” bikes. That’s OK. I will proudly ride them anywhere in tribute to my first bike as an adult.

In 1972 when I was working in downtown D.C. I grew tired of the car commute and parking fees, which I really couldn’t afford on my $8,098 annual salary. (Which, however, was good enough to allow me to have my own apartment in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va., right across the Key Bridge from Georgetown, something today’s kids starting their careers probably can’t afford.) A secretary I worked with said she had this old bike she’d sell me–for $7. It was rusted but serviceable. To further dissuade thieves, I bought a can of orange spray paint and another of yellow. Holding one in each hand, I painted it. It was so hideous (or psychedelic–remember this was the early 70’s) that I figured no one would steal it–and no one did. I rode it down Pennsylvania Ave. and then Constitution Ave. and chained it to a lamp post.

So yeah, it’s a girls bike. You want to make something of it?

Now I’m going to post what I really want to ride in downtown St.Pete: an old steel racing bike with downtube shifters and a look that would dissuade any potential thief. Let me know if you have one.

Long Ago and Far Away

I went to my 50th high school reunion last night. I had no business being there.

I was not a big man on campus. In fact, few could tolerate me, as I recall. Lacking social standing or a hot girlfriend, I tried to be the class cut up, never convinced my classmates were laughing with me and not at me. I hoped at least a couple of the guys I knew would be there.

Just outside the door of the reunion hall were a few classmates, one a woman who was a looker back then—even in the 7th grade when I first met her. “Met” is an imprecise word. Maybe she granted me a “Hi” once or twice. She was quiet back then—at least toward me. As I introduced myself to the people standing with her, I looked at her name tag. (She may still be considered hot to a 68-year old, but our standards are far lower these days; sentient is all that’s required.)

“I remember you,” I said, hoping that with a few sentences I could double the time I had ever spoken to her in my life. I didn’t quite achieve that, or even recognition.

“Right inside you can check in,” was all she said. It was an ominous start.

I had spent the earlier part of the day visiting my mother’s sister, the last remaining of the previous generation, then the two houses where I lived before going to college.

20160604_135413_resized First was the Northeast Philadelphia row home my parents bought when I was one-year old. The neighborhood showed its age and changing dynamic that apparently didn’t include a working understanding of litter, replacing it with a sense that the sidewalk was a large trash can.20160604_143228_resized

The house itself had been remodeled, with vinyl siding on the upper level replacing the faux Tudor look of the home that costs my parents $7,700. They were proud of their home but, being parsimonious, a trait in the Griendling and Patti blood streams, they wanted to pay the home off early. My mother had examined the amortization table and calculated the interest they were paying. So they added a few dollars to the monthly payment of $24. I remember when I first saw their mortgage documents in the mid 1970’s I thought we’d never see 4% interest rates again.

20160604_141201_resizedI walked up the street and then down the back alley where I played all those ball games city kids create—stick ball, half ball, wire ball, hand ball, step ball. I stopped behind my house. A car was parked in front of where the garage was before it was converted into what must be a tiny room.

A man, perhaps in his 20’s, was inside the car so I approached. He rolled down the window. I asked if he lived in my house.

“Uh, yes, sort of,” fumbling with something in his hands.

“I grew up here,” I said.

He perked up. “Really? Cool!” He fumbled with his hands again and looked apologetic. “I’m just rolling joint,” he said.

20160604_142845_resized“That’s OK,” I said. I have a home in Colorado.

He laughed. He may have thought I bought the home so I could freely buy marijuana. We had a connection beyond the row house.

We talked a bit and I got the courage to ask the slightly creepy question, “Do you think your parents would mind if I took a peek inside?” He looked skeptical. “My mother wouldn’t mind at all, but she’s not home. My dad is, but he’s kind of weird and we don’t get along.” At least I tried.

I then drove to the South Jersey suburb where we moved when I was 11. 20160604_152347_resizedMy parents had paid off the row home and now could afford a split level on a cul de sac. They paid cash and never had a mortgage again in their lives. That neighborhood had fared a little better. I then drove by the old high school, which, again, looked pretty good for its 60 years.

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It was time to face the music. Would anyone remember me at the reunion? After the ignoble exchange with my past crush, I walked inside and signed in.

“Were you red or blue?” the woman at the registration table asked. Our high school was so overcrowded with other immigrants to suburbia that we had shifts. One went in at 6:45 a.m. and ended at 12:30 p.m. The other started 15 minutes later and was dismissed at 5:45 p.m. One was the red school, the other blue and completely separate. We even played each other in sports.

“I don’t remember. Red I think,” I said. So I got a red star on my ID badge that had my name and my graduation photo. Of course, that photo might not help a lot of folks. It was heavily airbrushed to hide my severe acne. I thought I should dot my face with a red pen to help classmates recall me.

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I pinned on the badge, took a deep breath and waded into the crowd. I was immediately greeted by someone who said, “I know this guy,” though he also squinted as he tried to read my name tag. “You looked just like your picture.” The other guys standing with him agreed. OK. That was a small victory to combat the relative anonymity of my high school years. At least I’m as unremarkable as I was then. As we age, we take anything we can get to remind ourselves that we are immortal.

But even that accomplishment soon was diminished by another’s comment. “You look just like an older version of yourself,” she said. I think that was a compliment.

Then it all came crashing down when another classmate later said, “Everybody thinks you dye your hair.” Great. Now I was unremarkably vainglorious—to “everybody.”

As I circulated I was sensing that this wouldn’t be a total waste of airfare or worst, a reaffirmation of my anonymity. I saw two guys I hung out with in high school, when we mostly drank beer in the woods and sang doo-wap songs. We dubbed ourselves The Four Gottens. Now I knew at least there was someone I could latch on as I was ignored by all the women.

Then the girl who lived across the street from me appeared and recognized me. We smiled and hugged and talked about our families. She introduced me to her husband. I then put my arm around here and looked at him. “I had a crush on your wife in high school,” I confessed. He just grinned, probably mentally boasting of his relative virility to mine. She just smiled awkwardly, probably thinking, “Yeah, I know, and it was awkward then, too.”

A woman and I then caught each other’s eye. Hers flew wide open. Mine looked puzzled I’m sure. I looked at her name tag. I remembered her immediately. She also lived on my block. We never had a thing for each other but we were friends from sixth grade on. I played touch football in the streets with her two older brothers. I learned two of them live in Florida with one in Clearwater. Small world.

As we talked a woman whose name or face triggered no recall walked up and smiled. My neighbor knew her. The woman said to my former neighbor, “Remember, you fixed up Bob and me for the 8th grade dance!” She did? We did? This was awkward. I tried to excuse myself by saying that I couldn’t remember breakfast let alone an 8th grade dance. But she did, and probably wasn’t buying my excuse. It did make me feel good. At least I had at least one date in my pubescent years.

While eating the mystery meat we had for dinner I looked across to the next table and saw a pretty blonde who, thanks probably in part to her hair dresser, looked exactly the same. Our eyes locked and I mouthed her name. She smiled and came over to my table.

Things were definitely looking up now. She was considered one of the most elegant in our class, or at least as elegant as a teenager could be. We talked and then I remembered that even back then, while I was not even remotely in her league, she was always nice to me. She said, “You were pretty shy back then.” I admitted to the charge, thinking that’s what severe acne will do to a boy.

As the night wore on, my courage was improving. I walked around the room looking for anyone who I might recognize and say hello to. I found a few, including a woman or two who were probably as nice to me now as they were back then—if I ever could see it past my facial and self-inflicted emotional scars.

The hall thinned out. I said goodbye and walked by the photos of the 80 members of our combined red and blue class of 500 who’ve since died. At least I made it to the reunion. And walked away feeling good about it.

Beat It

Amazing what happens when you read the instructions. Twice before I’ve made Beef Stroganoff. Both times sauce was good but beef was tough. Now top round steak is not exactly filet mignon. Yesterday, for the first time I saw the recipe said you have to beat the steak for slicing and cooking. Made all the difference in the world.

Never a dull moment riding in the mountains

The day wasn’t expected to be ideal for riding, but the storms weren’t expected until mid-afternoon.

Bicycling in the mountains requires respect for late afternoon storms. So I headed out at 9:20 a.m. hoping to get in a couple of good climbs by lunch time. It was about 55 degrees, mostly cloudy and windless.

Starting from our home south of downtown Evergreen , Colo. means the first two miles test only your courage as it’s two miles downhill on bumpy roads with traffic the last mile. But then comes the gentle climb along Upper Bear Creek, with gorgeous homes along it.

The climbing turns serious up Witter Gulch, but the hail storm that started at about 8600 ft. elevation and lasted almost until I reached the top at over 9,000 feet made it that much more challenging. The hail was about 1/4-inch in diameter but fortunately wasn’t too heavy.

At the top, I thought about taking a picture of the cloud enshrouded vista, but then thunder struck. What I heard in that clap was Mother Nature telling me “Get the hell off that mountain now.”

On the descent it drizzled so I had to keep feathering the brakes and taking the few switchbacks along Squaw Pass Rd. as its known carefully. Even though the temperature had dropped to the mid-40’s, the arm warmers and wind vest kept my core warm, even if my bare legs were a tad chilly.

I had planned to head south on Rt. 74 and then do one more climb up Stagecoach Rd., thinking the rain would stop at the lower elevation. But when it didn’t I decided to call it a day. Which meant holding on while I descended back into town. Normally, that drop is fun, but the road has deteriorated greatly the last two years and I had to scan for potholes all the way down, again scrubbing speed in case I hit one.

That left only the 1-3% climb up Cub Creek and the the dirt Mesa and Hermosa Roads until I got home.

Wiping the bike down I started to shiver, hoping that my numb fingers would thaw and that hypothermia wouldn’t set in.

The last time I got caught in a hail storm I couldn’t stop shivering for nearly an hour afterward. I took a hot shower, and still shivering, I looked up how to treat hypothermia. Apparently the last thing you should do is take a hot shower as the shock to the system can cause a heart attack.

But this time wasn’t so bad. The shower felt great. I lingered there awhile.

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