Nov 04 2014

Where the Wild Horses Are

Jill and I spent the weekend at Assateague, Maryland’s coastal island and home to its famous wild horses. It was cold and windy but lovely–we had a heater in the van (a new addition). And we took the dogs, of course. They always make travel more interesting. I love the beach during the off-season for the obvious reason: we have it all to ourselves.

Legend has it that Assateague’s horses were survivors from a shipwreck two hundred years ago. A more plausible explanation is that these stocky, wooly horses are feral descendants of horses belonging to local inhabitants who brought their horses here to avoid taxes and fencing restrictions. The horses, I guess, got out of hand — and got out. If you camp in a tent, you’ll hear the horses hoofing through your campsite late at night, looking for an ice chest or storage container to break into. They can be very aggressive and persistent, as more than a few eager camera-toting tourists have found out.


Our dogs, Cleo and Sadie, love the beach. I imagine that for them the big-sky expanse of sand and the rumble and wash of waves are amazing sights and sounds. If we are amazed, why wouldn’t they be?


Jill and I played cards in the van, watched movies, read. The wind buffeted the van so roundly, it felt like we were in a treehouse during a storm. It’s actually a cozy feeling, the dogs sleeping under the bed, lots of goodies in the cupboard, and–just outside our windows–the dunes, the Atlantic, and the wide-open sky.

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Oct 23 2014

The Whiteboard Scam

Published by under City Life,writing & arts

If you are a teacher, you are familiar with the “whiteboard,” also called the “dry erase board.” It has replaced the chalkboard in most schools. Also it’s common in the workplace for lectures, strategy meetings etc. It consists of a laminated glossy white surface on which you write with colored markers. When it first appeared in the late 1980s,it was touted as a modern, much-improved alternative to the chalkboard. This was bullshit.

Proponents of the whiteboard claimed that the traditional chalk board was messy and too dusty. Chalk dust could affect kids with asthma. If you’re older than 40, you may remember your grade school teacher sending a volunteer outside to clap clean the chalk-filled felt erasers every day. It was a job most kids envied because you got out of the classroom to do something nobody else got to do. Until this year, when I was put into a “high-tech” classroom, I have always used a chalkboard–for 25 years of teaching. It never occurred to me that the chalkboard needed improvement.

The great thing about a chalkboard is its simplicity. Nothing could be more fundamental than chalk. It is soft white limestone–the compacted skeletal remains of sea creatures. Shells mostly. Stuff that’s millions of years old. The chalkboard itself is porcelain enamel. It was invented in the early 1800s, so it’s not as old a technology as it might seem. It’s incredibly easy to use. You may think that the whiteboard is an improvement insofar as it’s easier to erase whiteboard marker than it is to erase chalk. True enough. And chalk leaves a film on the chalkboard. Dry-erase markers don’t leave a film.

But dry-erase markers leave a mucky smear on the eraser itself. And that smear can get all over your hands. Dry-erase markers themselves used to be toxic, containing an odorous ketone. They now contain ethanol. But they’re still odorous, a smell I don’t like–and it can aggravate people with asthma. The worst thing about the dry-erase alternative is the markers. Yes, they come in many colors, but they don’t last long. If you press too hard on them, the marker’s wick disappears inside the container. If you don’t cap them, they dry out. Also you have to have a special fluid to clean the erasers. I don’t know if the fluid is toxic, but most likely it is.

The result is that the dry erase marker is a hassle, taking more time, attention, money and maintenance than the traditional chalkboard. A box of chalk lasts a year, maybe more. A box of dry-erase markers might last a month. You have to buy dry-erase “kits” to keep up with the use. Also, unlike chalk — which you can use varying ways, to create block letters or elegant script — each dry-erase marker comes in only one thickness. So, if you need a bolder line, you need another dry-erase marker. Pretty soon, you find yourself sorting through a pile of markers, half of which have dried out, capping and uncapping them to find just what you need.

In short, the dry-erase marker and its whiteboard is a scam manufactured by supply companies who have capitalized on our perceived need to improve the things we use. (A simliar scam is the Compact Flourescent Bulb, which is toxic, fragile, and much more short-lived than the manufacturers claim.) Let me be clear: I don’t advocate keeping the chalkboard for sentimental reasons that conjure quaint schoolroom scenes from a bygone era. I advocate keeping the chalkboard because it doesn’t need improvement, as its 200-year-old history plainly shows. Some things come to us in their ultimate and most useful form. The chalkboard is one of those. Wherever I can, I shun the messy, high-maintenance whiteboard. Maybe you will too.

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Oct 09 2014

Jerry Lewis’s “Nutty Professor” And A Longing for the Rat Pack

Published by under writing & arts

You don’t have to be a Jerry Lewis fan to enjoy his 1963 masterwork, “The Nutty Professor,” just released in a 50th anniversary boxed set (one year late, for some reason). This film is the one Lewis production that strikes the right balance between obnoxious and entertaining. Although the story is predictably misogynistic (how could it not be in 1963?), its reliance on the Jekyll/Hyde plot and its depiction of the professor as a gentle uber-nerd give it a broad appeal. If for no other reason, the movie is worth watching for its Hollywood portrayal of college life at the time. This portrayal is notable because everything about college life–and life in America–will change a year later after JFK’s assassination and the arrival of the Beatles.

The most glaring thing that Lewis gets wrong in the movie is the music, featuring Les Brown and His Band of Renown. It’s middlebrow swing, more appropriate for a 1950’s nightclub than a 1960’s college hangout. It’s true that kids were still swing dancing to a lot of contemporary music, from Doo Wop to Rockabilly. You’ll see a lot of that in old footage of American Bandstand. But dance was changing too. “The Twist” debuted in late 1959 and, by 1963, was at its height of popularity, along with “The Pony” and soon dozen other steps in the go-go era. But Lewis didn’t want rock or even pop music–he wanted swing because that’s what he grew up with.

And that’s why the Jekyll character in the film is “Buddy Love,” a jazz-loving lounge lizard. This is the second thing Lewis gets wrong: college kids were increasingly drawn either to rocking boy bands, like the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers, or to the new breed of solo rockers, like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Pop-swing sensations, like Bobby Darin, were rare. In fact, Darin’s break-out hit was “Splish Splash,” a pop rock tune.

Most critics assumed that the obnoxious Buddy Love was a lampoon of Dean Martin. But a perusal of Lewis’s films will make clear that Lewis longed to be a night club performer in the style of his ex-partner and Sammy Davis, Jr., and other Vegas ”Rat Pack” stars. Starting with his first solo effort, “The Delicate Delinquent,” in 1957, Lewis sought opportunities to feature himself singing in his films. He took his singing very seriously, as he took himself very seriously. One of the major flaws of his solo film career was his refusal to give himself over wholly to the characters he played. Almost always, you’d see him wearing a pinky ring or a masculine ID bracelet, even when he was supposed to be portraying a down-on-his-luck nerdy janitor. His Vegas-style bling signaled to viewers that he was hip and not to be confused with the hapless character they were laughing at.


Buddy Love, then, was Lewis’s opportunity to show off his Vegas-style chops and his Vegas style. If you have any doubt about Jerry Lewis’s aspiration to join the Rat Pack, take a look at 1965’s “Boeing Boeing,” in which he co-stars with Tony Curtis as a woman-hungry hipster, again in the Vegas style: i.e., sharkskin suits, slicked back hair, heavy male jewelry. Increasingly in the mid- to late sixties, he sought non-idiot roles (1966’s “Three on a Couch” is another). These are painful to watch because in every one Lewis is trying too hard to prove himself in a then already-outdated middle-aged fantasy.



“The Nutty Professor” is watchable because it is one of the only films (“The Bell Boy” is another) that allows viewers to fully sympathize with the goofy nerd he portrays. Professor Kelp never breaks character. His sci-fi transformation to Buddy Love bridges that gap. Then Buddy Love swaggers onto the set and Jerry Lewis lives out his fantasy. If we were meant to disdain Mr. Love as a narcissistic knock-off of Dean Martin, Mr. Love would not triumph in the end. But he does triumph. Watch the film and you’ll see.

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Oct 02 2014

The First Floor is Done

Published by under House Love

I’ve been mostly missing from Face Book and totally absent from my blog for about three months because Jill and I have been finishing some major projects in the house. We wanted to get these done before Fall slipped into the hectic holiday season, so we put everything else aside and hunkered down. We do major projects every year but this year our projects had stacked up, in part because we had gone to some auctions and found stuff we had to have, like a huge stained glass window we thought we could install over our entry doors at the front of the house.

So here’s a list of what we’ve accomplished.

1) Painted the master bedroom.

2) Repaired the linoleum runner in the pantry

3) installed antique leaded transoms in the dining room:

4) Finished the woodwork in the first-floor hallway:

5) Installed a new pair of antique doors–with stained glass–in the front:

6) Installed a huge antique stained glass window over the entry doors:

7) Installed an antique tile backsplash in the kitchen:

8) Finished the tile of the dining room fireplace:

9) Re-finished the kitchen floor (no photo)

10) Installed a new faucet in the pantry (no photo).

11) Installed a new antique light in the first floor hallway where there had been no light:

12) Installed a new antique light on the second floor landing:

13) Painted the dining room. (No photo yet).

This work completes the final phase of our first floor. Which is to say that it’s done. People often ask us if the house is done. It’s a running joke. Well, sure, the house is done, more or less. But done done? That determination changes as Jill and I go to auctions and find cool stuff we want to install — like the stained glass we found recently. That said, we’re fairly confident that the first floor is done done. The next big project is the third floor bathroom. It will get a new tile floor, a new antique tub, and toilet. It’s a big job I’m not looking forward to. But one morning, without much forethought, I’ll find myself on my hands and knees in that bathroom, tearing out the cheap tile we’d put in as “interim,” my head filled with visions of how cool that bathroom is going to look . . . soon.

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Jun 16 2014

New England Spring

Jill and I spent two weeks in New England recently. We took our custom camper van–and the dogs, of course. Jill wanted to see a really old house–since New England is the place to see really old houses–so I took her to the Fairbanks House, which is the oldest timber frame building in North America, built in 1636. She was duly impressed but also kind of freaked out about it because “it’s so dark and damp and crooked inside and I can imagine how hard it must have been to live in that house nearly 300 years ago!” We looked up the European population of America at that time: about 1,200 people. That freaked Jill out too. The pioneers, they had to be some kind of crazy to come here and live as they did, isolated in a vast wilderness.

We stopped in Marblehead, MA, for a visit with some friends and got to watch some high-end badminton, which–if you’ve never seen–is quite spectacular and takes athleticism and much skill to do well. Lightning fast reflexes help. Badminton, you should know, is an Olympic sport. The best players are Asian. To get an idea of how popular badminton is in the world, just check out this You Tube video that’s gotten over 7 million views: Crazy Badminton.

Lobster is everywhere in New England–grocery stores, roadside stands, fish shacks–and cheap. We got it more than once, the last time at a roadside place and ate it in the van. We had to use our pliers to get into it. By the way, if you’re preparing lobster yourself and have a live one, put it in the freezer first to numb it, then kill it humanely, as shown in this helpful video: How to Kill a Lobster

We drove through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which are lovely and surprisingly wild. There was still snow on the distant peaks. We didn’t have time to go north to see the notoriously dangerous Mt. Washington, highest point in the northeast, where the weather is unpredictable and deadly year-round. Jill really wanted to see a moose. At one pint she exclaimed, “Is that a MOOSE?” It was just a fisherman in casting in a river. Actulaly, early spring is the right time of year to see a moose but all we saw were the moose warning signs. As for other wildlife: it was too cool for the black flies but the mosquitoes were numerous. However, they weren’t aggressive: they would swarm and nose around us but rarely bit. I’m not sure what that was about.

Jill made the brave and ill-advised decision to stop for Thai food in Montpelier, VT. I know, you don’t buy Asian food in Vermont, especially when it’s made by a non-Asian cook. I was more than skeptical. But it was great food! I mean, truly memorable and reasonably priced. Vermont is a foody state and Burlington, its hipster hotspot, is a foody town. We hung out with the Preservation Burlington folk and ate well. Oh, and here’s a shout-out to Chris and Sara, a rabbit loving couple we look forward to seeing again.

We’re always looking for cool historic houses to visit. Jill picked out Shelburne Farms, just south of Burlington. It’s a circa 1900 estate that has some similarities to North Carolina’s Biltmore insofar as it was a wholly self-sustained community built around one wealthy man’s vision. The barns and outbuildings are spectacular. The mansion itself is, by comparison, understated but grand nonetheless. We had a very good brunch in the house and bought some of the farm-made cheese at the gift shop.

Once we crossed into New York (I know, this isn’t New England) Jill was determined to find one of the historic vacation camps in the Adirondacks. These “camps” were resorts created by the wealthy circa 1900-1920. We set our sights on a National Historic Landmark: Great Camp Sagamore. But it wasn’t east to find because there was virtually no signage for the place and it was four miles down a dirt road, off a two-lane blacktop. When we got there, we found it not yet open for the season. We were surprised to learn that it’s a very popular place, booked solid through the summer. We talked to the groundskeeper, a flinty mountain-man with a gray-stubbled face and a battered hat. He spoke through a cloud of black flies and didn’t raise a finger to bat them away–unlike us.

As part of my Preservation America project, we stopped in Rhinebeck, NY, so that I could interview the director of Wilderstein, one of our favorite historic mansions. It’s a high Victorian frame house with a grand tower and elegant wrap-around porch that overlooks the Hudson. It was the home of Daisy Suckley, FDR’s cousin and good friend–you may remember the recent movie made about her, “Hyde Park on the Hudson.”

By the time we got home, the van was as crowded as it could ever be: not only were there two dogs in the back but also a cool Arts & Crafts fire screen that Jill had found in a Maine antiques shop, as well as a painting and a rug we got at a flea market, a box of craft stuff and a bag of vintage clothes from a yard sale, a 1960s boat compass, assorted thrift store finds (including a new Marblehead baseball cap and a William Morris necktie), and a box of leftover pizza. Next year, I tell Jill, we’re going to Texas. Lord knows what we’ll bring back from that trip.

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: