Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Can exercise save us? If so, will we take it up?

Americans are fat, or at least most Americans. In fact, statistics reveal that more Americans are obese than are merely overweight.

While I didn’t qualify for the former category, I certainly was on my way there, until reversing course back in June. My own experience the past 18 weeks has taught me some really important lessons that were validated this morning, when I found a link to this great story in the Financial Times, about Jerry Morris.

Who is Jerry Morris, you ask? Well Jerry Morris is a British researcher who came upon data that indicated an unprecedented number of people dying of heart attacks in Britain. Morris was the one that set up a vast study to look at heart-attack rates in people fromm a variety of occupations, primarily civil servants—schoolteachers, postmen, transport workers, and others.

As he began carefully sorting through this data, just after WWII (there were no computers to do this work back then), Morris had an inkling that heart attack rates were related to occupation. He was particularly interested in the busmen that were part of his data set. Partly this was do to the sample size being large, but also, he noted that the data was particularly telling in that the drivers and conductors were from the same social class, yet, conductors rates of heart attack was half that of the drivers. The only explanation that Morris could come up with was that the drivers were sedentary and the conductors on the double-decker busses had to climb up and down stairs, taking tickets all day.

Today, it’s a given that exercise can help lower the risk of heart disease. In 1949, however, Morris was the first one to make that connection.

The article goes on to mention that Morris began his connection to exercise in early childhood.

“My father used to take me on a four-mile walk from Glasgow once a week, when I was a schoolboy. We used to aim to do the four miles in an hour. If we did that OK, I got an ice-cream. If we did it in even a minute less, I got a choc-ice.”

Morris himself is now 101, and still regularly shows up for work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where his office is.

The most interesting part of Morris’ study for me was the correlation between heart health and vigorous exercise.

When Morris compiled his research, an inordinate amount of these civil servants were gardeners—91 percent actually—it’s what “kept them sane,” Morris reported. He originally believed this would keep them from heart disease, but he found out that only vigorous exercise—running, biking, playing football, swimming, etc. had the capacity to do that.

In my own case, it wasn’t until I ramped up my activity, as well as becoming more conscious of how many calories I was taking in that I began to see any significant and consistent weight loss. Merely cutting calories wasn’t going to do it. Continuing to overeat also wasn’t helping. It required a combination, but physical activity was certainly a key factor in my success. It will continue to be, if I am to remain successful in keeping the weight (47 pounds as of this morning, btw) off.

I’ve mentioned Tyler before, he of He’s now down 123.6 pounds in 40 weeks. How’s he doing it? Yep; reducing calories, and of course, ramping up his physical activity.

Here’s a running routine he’s adopted.

Now that the days are growing shorter, I can’t bike after work. I’ve rediscovered my treadmill in the basement, and most mornings, I’m on it 35-40 minutes before work, and sometimes another 20-30 minutes in the evening.

This week’s been a challenge—for the past two mornings, I’ve had to leave the house before 7:00, headed to early morning appointments for work. Last night, I came home after a very long day and hit the treadmill for 35 minutes. I have been alternating somewhat like Tyler, between walking/running. I’ll usually walk for the first five minutes, starting first at 3.9 and then increasing to 4.1, or 4.1. Then at 5:00, I crank it up to 6.8 and run for two minutes, or sometimes, 2:15, then walk for another two, or three minutes, run two, et cetera. I also try to get a 3-4 minute burst in about midway through, and do some light weighted exercises for my upper body.

After that routine, I came up and hit the Lifecycle for 30 minutes watching the Celtics pregame. Burned about 800 calories, which helped offset the 2,300 calories I consumed for the day.

As Morris’ study shows, obesity, and all the attendant health issues connected to our sedentary lifestyle and lack of activity will continue to plague us in the U.S., as well as developing nations that refuse to learn from our mistakes here in the west.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book it

Books are wonderful things. They transport us to new places, open us up to new ideas, and sometimes, simply entertain. For nearly 40 years, I've carried on a love affair with books, dating back to my earliest memories of checking out books at the Marion T. Morse Elementary School, in Lisbon Falls.

On Saturday, I was in attendance at Boston's inaugural book festival. While the city at one time had a festival, apparently sponsored by the Boston Globe, it's been years since the last one. Seeing that Boston was the only major American city without an annual festival championing the book, plans were undertaken to revive the tradition.

The first one was a success from what I could see. You can read my reflections from Saturday at Write in Maine.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-sporadic record review #1

I’ve managed to stay fairly regular with my Shuffle Play Friday posts. This Friday, not only did I not have my weekly SPF up before shuffling off for a busy final day of the work week, I had little, or no time prior to work to parcel together my thoughts.

Usually, I’ve got most of this written Thursday night, and even have it posted prior to midnight, when Thursday shifts into the wee hours of Friday. Thursday night, I was gassed and in bed by nine. My day job has been kicking me in the ass of late, coupled with a physical routine that is forcing me relocate the energy level that I once had when I was a young man.

Today, while eating my lunch, sitting outside my office, in the parking lot, I cobbled together a few thoughts, and a couple of paragraphs that approximated some of my feelings about a new CD that arrived in the mail. It’s been awhile since a collection of music has me this excited about some new tunes.

This week, as much as I wanted to write about another batch of four, or five songs, I’ve decided to forgo that convention, at least temporarily. The reason being, Joel Plaskett’s new triple disc, Three, showed up yesterday, in the mail. Holy fucking shit!! While I had some high expectations about Plaskett, based upon a few things I’ve read, plus the handful of tracks I’ve listened to online, this new record has been playing over and over since yesterday afternoon, when I ran out to my post office box in hopes that the new disc (s) had arrived. I wasn’t disappointed. It was sitting in my box, and I’ve been listening in my car, at home (even Miss Mary, not the biggest fan of most of my music gives it a “thumbs up”), and in my head for the past 24 hours.

The first disc (at least the way the CD is sequenced) contains several of the tracks I had previewed online; tunes like “Gone, Gone, Gone,” “Through & Through & Through,” and “You Let Me Down.” All stellar and I love being able to blast them on something besides my computer. The other two discs also are filled with amazing stuff. On disc two, “Beyond, Beyond, Beyond” is one of my favorites on the entire disc. With its plaintive look back at what I believe is autobiographical material—Plaskett’s youth growing up in Nova Scotia (he mentions Lunenburg, the town where he was born, before moving to Halifax, “In ’87 I moved away”).

With a line like “Beauty, love and people close, because that is what we need the most,” Plaskett sets forth his priorities and values for his listeners. This isn’t someone that got into music for the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” stereotypes. No, he’s got something to say, and every song is infused with something worth taking away. Plaskett’s a songwriter and he knows he way around words and imagery.

The arrangements on Three are mostly simple and spare, although simple doesn’t mean lacking punch, or power. Plaskett is a musician that understands space in his music, and doesn’t feel the need to fill it with a bunch of noise, or guitar wankery. In fact, the axe work provides what’s necessary, and nothing more. Plaskett proves that he’s a tasteful player, and both his playing, along with the fretwork of his dad (yes, his freakin’ dad!), Bill show a stylistic nod to being comfortable with the knowledge that less is more. Father and son share songwriting credits on disc two’s “Heartless, Heartless, Heartless.” The elder Plaskett, a former folkie during the 80s, also contributes piano, tenor guitar, and even bouzouki (a mainstay in modern Greek music).

The backing vocals of Anna Egge and Rose Cousins add something unique to the record. In fact, Plaskett indicates that he wrote parts into songs, like in “Wishful Thinking,” which tracks in at 7:15, and uses a basic arrangement of a drum machine, guitar and great call and answer lines, courtesy of Egge and Cousins, as well as adding some amazing harmonies on this one.

From an interview that Plaskett did back in May for The Coast, a Halifax-based arts and entertainment site, he indicates that Three has a definite narrative arc, basically, a story in three parts; going away, being alone and then coming back home.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why this new disc, by a musician that two weeks ago, I knew nary a thing about, has quickly forged a connection through his songs, evoking memories and remembrances from my own life.

There is always a temptation to read our own experiences into songs, and the words of songsmiths, or writers in general; there is even a danger in personalizing music entirely. At the same time, good songwriting is impressionistic, and has the ability to transport us.

Plaskett’s new disc (s) does that and more.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chasing the sun

I know opportunities for post-work bike rides are just about gone, as days grow shorter. By the time I get home from work, there is no longer time/light enough to get in an hour on my bike.

After being on the road since 7:00 this morning, I cut my day short and was home by 4:30, which allowed me time enough to get in 16 miles out and about on the back roads near where I live.

The next several months will be tough. I can join the gym and maintain the level of workout intensity I've grown accustomed to (and need to maintain in order to stay in shape). What will be difficult will be the lack of sunshine, and the seasonal blues that a shortage of vitamin D can engender.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The irony of being fit

Since June 23, when I weighed-in at 259.5 pounds, I have lost 44.5 45 pounds, all in a period of 17 weeks, or just over four months. This involved nary a newfangled diet, eating plan with odd variations of foods replete with prescribed times of the day for imbibing, no pre-packaged food plans, or anything else out of the ordinary. Actually, I take that back—losing weight and adopting a healthier lifestyle does entail swimming upstream, adopting a new consciousness that is not the norm. It involves awareness and accepting responsibility for your choices of foods, quantities eaten, and deciding to exercise, or not, along with the level of intensity.

For me, my decision resulted from coming face-to-face with a man in the mirror, approaching middle age, who had been going to seed for more than a decade. It had been years, save for a brief period in 2005, since I had embraced any regular, intensive level of physical activity, or continued for any longer than a month, or two. I mention 2005 because that was when, just after New Years, I joined the YMCA nearby and enlisted their training services. For about two months, while working at home, I’d leave my writing tasks three afternoons per week, and do a variety of stations on their Nautilus equipment. I absolutely hated it. I hated the people, pretentious stay-at-home moms, and assorted elderly fitness fanatics, and others that I wasn’t ready to deal with—I hadn’t made the mental commitment that I’ve come to by accident over the past four months.

When I started all of this back in June, I was hoping to start with losing 10 pounds, and if that went well, then I planned to continue, possibly dropping 20 pounds total. I approached all of this with trepidation, and not much confidence. I’ve lost 10 pounds before, and then gained it back, shortly thereafter.

I think what jumpstarted my progress was Mary’s excitement at biking for a cause. We both made decisions to ramp up our training intensity as a pretext to participating in The Dempsey Challenge. Over those weeks, which eventually become months, being out on my bike, for an hour, or two at a time, was liberating. You couldn’t be checking email, answering a cell phone, Twittering—just you, your bike, propelled by the power inherent within your own human frame—plugged into the real, rather than virtual world. [chart above indicates the simple math of weight loss--my avg. calories consumed (bluish, on left), vs. avg. calories burned (yellow, on right) over the past two months-jb]

There were times out on the back roads, and occasionally, main roads, when a driver got too close. Occasionally (maybe two, or three times all summer and early fall) I would think, mid-ride, this sucks! I don’t want to be out here, 45 minutes or longer, from home. The hills that day seemed too steep, or my legs felt like shit because it was my third, or fourth consecutive long ride. Surprisingly, these negative thoughts were rare, and before long, I began to anticipate and pine for my ride after a day of work—days most often spent dealing with problem people, bureaucracy, and the giant “suck” that is work, even for someone like me, who generally likes his day job.

Interestingly, it took me until I was down about 35 pounds that a few people began asking me, “have you lost weight?” When I’d tell them the amount, most often, they were incredulous. I’m not surprised, as most of these people, maybe all of them, never knew me when I was in my athletic prime, or had seen me when I was a 25-year-old athlete, still engaged competitively on the diamond.

What has been ironic of late, particularly the past two weeks, is how many people at the office have made comments like, “hey skinny,” or, “look at Mr. Weight-loss,” or one person who said to me, “you need to upgrade that wardrobe,” particularly since my pants in particular have gotten quite baggy. One person, bless her heart, even asked me, “are you ok?” because apparently, in our country, being 50 pounds overweight means you are viewed as healthy, and nearing your ideal weight elicits concerns that you might possibly have lost your weight, not from any healthy motive, but possibly that you are wasting away from some ravaging disease. Recently, my own mother said to me, “you look good, but you shouldn’t lose any more.” Ah, excuse me, but according to most weight charts, I’m still about 10 pounds heavier than someone my height and frame should be. I’ll continue to work out and watch what I eat, because I like the new me.

As the days grow shorter, and my riding time is being compressed, I will be forced inside for the winter months. This time, I’m finding a gym where I can go, do my shit, and get out in 1-2 hours; I plan on doing this three times per week, and intersperse it with my treadmill work in the basement.

As I log those hours, under artificial illumination, I’ll long like a dog for his bone, to be back out in the open air, on my bike, building up for my next fitness adventure, and the warmer days of summer 2010.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-Back to the north

A few weeks back, I detailed the parallel rock universe, just north of our border, infused with diversity and variety. While I like to think of myself as being into newer music, I actually know little about that new world I'm immersing myself in, save for a few bands--The Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, Bachmann Turner Overdrive, and a handful of others.

I encourage my brethren in the continental 48, and of course the yonder regions of Alaska, and the tropical paradise of Hawaii to check out CBC Radio 3, and tune into a diverse array of bands that stack of favorably to anything on rock stations stateside.

Joel Plaskett-Gone, Gone, Gone/Three

Who releases triple albums anymore? Shit, who releases music arranged and sequenced, period? Joel Plaskett, Canadian indie rocker extraordinaire, that’s who. The former front man for Halifax-based Thrush Hermit had a career year in 2009, winning a Polaris for Three. The Polaris Music Prize is a fairly new award, established in 2006, and is given to the best full-length Canadian album. It’s based solely on artistic merit, irrespective of genre, and not dependent on sales or record label affiliation. The award comes with a C$20,000 cash prize.

Plaskett is no stranger to an array of Canadian music awards, including songwriter of the year in 2006 and 2007, male artist of the year in 2005, entertainer of the year in 2004, 2006, and 2007, as well as being a recipient of a bunch of other coveted Canadian rock honors. Who knew?

Three is about multiple derivatives of the number three—the album consists of three discs, with each disc comprise of nine songs. Many of the song titles have a title that repeats three times, like “Gone, Gone, Gone.” Plaskett is pictured on the cover holding up three fingers and the numbers of the release date, 3/24/2009, are all divisible by three.

Plaskett’s music has been described by one critic as “aching folk-pop,” which I couldn’t disagree with. When I first listened to Plaskett’s tracks on Last.FM, I heard a bit of the pop-ish qualities of Joe Pernice, an expat American, now living in Canada himself; Toronto, to be exact.

I ordered Three last week, and I’m eagerly anticipating its arrival. I expect the discs will be pulling overtime duty in my CD player at home, and in the car.

The Wheat Pool-This Is It/Hauntario

If you know anything of my musical inclinations, you know they never stray too far from alt-country, and rock firmly planted in the roots-rock vein. Hearing The Wheat Pool the first time recently, I couldn’t help but thing of Uncle Tupelo’s brilliant third album, March 16-20.

This particular track is an folk-rock gem, perfect for late at night listening, when you are sitting alone, beer in hand, reminiscing about happier times, when you were younger and hope was ample and not hedged in by gray hair and the approach of middle age. The song’s chorus has the line, “If our love is but a fire, then our hearts must be made of wood,” which you’ll be singing to yourself for days afterwards.

Another track I particularly liked and couldn’t resist was “Neil Young,” an ode to one of their Canadian rock and roll forefathers (as well as a longtime fave of mine), from The Wheat Pool’s first record, Township.

No less an authority on the entire alt-country genre than No Depression gave Hauntario a solid review, indicating that the new release is a “restless, hurting record full of the kind of cocaine jags and morning after regrets that put a person in a frame of mind to hit the road, fleeing with the last few vestiges of dignity and pride intact. None of the songs come from a healthy, happy place, and if they weren’t so brilliant and evocative, we’d all be much better off avoiding them altogether. But, there’s a kind of train wreck fascination in following the sludgy tangled momentum of each song as the crunching electric and acoustic guitars swirl around each other trying to find their own voice as the skies around them thicken.”

So there you have it. If alt-country is your cup of tea, then The Wheat Pool are your kind of band and Hauntario will probably fit right in next to your UT, Bottle Rockets, and Centro-matic CDs.

Amy Honey-Old Reliable Death/Pioneer Woman

What is it about Nova Scotia that keeps churning out some of Canada’s more talented musicians, like singer-songwriter Amy Honey, the pride of West Chezzetcook? Not too much different than my home state of Maine, with a population slightly less than our 1 million plus, Halifax has long been home to creative types, but West Chezzetcook?

Like it’s evil twin brother, taxes, death never takes a holiday, and always stalking its prey. Maybe because I lost an uncle this week, this song resonated with me and easily made the cut for SPF.

Amelia Curran-Bye, Bye, Montreal/Hunter, Hunter

I’ve been to Montreal many times, particularly when my wife Mary’s aunt lived in the city. I have never been to this international city and not had a great time and left longing to return.

When I heard Curran singing this song, I couldn’t help but think of the time, when Mark was small, and we’d drive north and spend a long weekend, taking in an Expos game at Olympic Stadium, one of the ugliest ballparks ever visited upon fans of America’s favorite pastime.

I need to find an excuse for returning for one more visit, soon.

Tijuana Bibles-Custom Made Man/Custom Made

Surf rock, replete with wrestling masks, wry lyrics, and killer guitar riffs, the T-Bibles were a huge hit in Europe, a continent that tends to “get” bands that don’t quite catch fire on this side of the pond.

From the website,, Tijuana Bibles were pornographic tracts popular in America before the advent of mass-market full-color glossy wank-fodder such as Playboy. A typical bible consisted of eight stapled comic-strip frames portraying characters and celebrities (eg. John Dillinger, Popeye, Disney characters) in wildly sodomistic situations.

The band Tijuana Bibles regularly contributed music to a variety of film projects including Canadian indie rock film Goldirocks, the masked wrestling horror film Zombie Beach Party (directed by old friend and nemesis Stacey Case) as well as two "blue" movies, Johnny Legend's Sex Mex and Toronto's "Dirty Pillows". They've also produced several of their own music videos for several of their own songs, including “Custom Made Man.” When the cult Canadian 70's TV show The Hilarious House of Frighenstein needed supplemental music for re-broadcast in 2006, the Bibles were enlisted for the task.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Hub of Broken Hearts

Another season that began with so much hope, sits dashed on the rocks this morning, as the California Angels accomplished what they’ve been trying to do since 1986—beat the Red Sox in the postseason. What was supposed to be the Sox’ strong suit—pitching, and in particular, the vaunted bullpen—gave away the game, one that clearly should have been won.

Much like the Shaughnessy-invented “curse of the Bambino,” another overused, and in my opinion, useless phrase is, “2004 changed everything.” Yeah, probably for those bandwagon riders, many female that now make it impossible for the cult of the longsuffering to find tickets to the games, but dues-paying lifers to the club knows that 2004 changed nothing for the many that know baseball is a marathon, not a spring, and as fatalists, know that every Red Sox loss could be the beginning of the unraveling of a season.

I still contend that most sports fans are morons, but some of RSN recognized chinks in the team’s armor long before October’s shadows graced Fenway’s green manor. Back in spring training, the incessant talk of too much pitching rattled around the echo chamber of Boston sports writers and their tendency to repeat one another. The rigors, strain, and torque visited on arms and bodies necessary to throw a baseball upwards of 90 miles per order can sideline the best of pitchers. Who would have guessed back in March that the season would hang on the inconsistent Game 3 slants of Clay Buchholz?

Two weeks ago, I grabbed Steward O’Nan and Stephen King’s Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Fans Chronicle The Historic 2004 Season off the library shelf, mainly to hate on King and possibly pen an essay about his over-inflated ego and the self-importance that attends some of the book. I’ve been reading it for the past week in snippets, between the overly long commercial breaks that plague televised baseball, and occasionally in bed, before sleep overtakes me. Instead of King’s ego getting in the way, I’ve found the book an interesting work of history that helps put the past three seasons in an entirely new context. To those of you that think “2004 changed everything,” I have two words for you and an accompanying gesture—fuck you!! (ok, enough of the potty mouth, and maybe a bit harsh, but good lord, many long-suffering Sox fans never got to experience 2004's WS win, kicking it before seeing their team break a streak of futility that dated back to 1918, curse, or no curse--jb).

Yes, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, and again in 2007—so what? The Yankees have won a total of 26 compared to a mere six for the Red Sox, and my prediction is that they’re on their way to #27 this year. Who the hell is going to stop them? With all due respect to the Angels, a gutsy group of gamers in their own right, watching the Yanks take two swings last night and turn Carl Pavano’s strong performance for the Twins into another “nice try” by a Yankees’ opponent convinced me that it will take a Herculean effort to derail the evil empire.

Red Sox fans might be staring another postseason drought of three years (2000-2002), or longer squarely in the face.

While I’m a big fan of Jon Lester, Beckett’s been a disappointment two postseasons in a row. Buchholz showed me something during parts of August and much of September that I had been looking for from him, still I’m not convinced he’s matured enough to become the type of big game pitcher the club needs.

I'm more optimistic about the pitching, thinking it will be ok heading into 2010, with Lester heading a decent staff, I still have my concerns about Beckett, and Dice-K, and it appears the Wakefield years in Boston are over. However, we may be looking at another throwback string of fourth and fifth starters the likes of Frank Castillo, John Burkett, and Brad Penny next summer. Buchholz could win 14, or 15 games, Lester might once and for all harness his electric stuff and have the career season I thought he’d finally have this year. With a greater commitment to training, Matzusaka could win in double figures. Still, Papelbon (Papel-fuck, as I “affectionately” call him) was shaky all season, culminated by yesterday’s meltdown (even Hendu throwing out the first pitch couldn’t save the loveable lunkhead). Who closes next year?

[Papelbon leaves field in 8th, after surrendering the season (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) ]

As for the offence, fans saw an anemic club that the likes of Lackey, Weaver, and Kazmir (while they got to him, it was a surprise to me, given his previous history against the Sox), not exactly Cy Young candidates, shut down. Right now, the Sox have a lineup that can’t hit the good pitchers. Yes, they pad their stats against Triple-A caliber staffs that clubs like Baltimore, Kansas City, Toronto (save Halladay), and the rest of the AL consist of. Against stud pitchers, however, Ortiz, Lowell, Drew, and most of the Sox lineup is overmatched. That won’t change next season.

Baseball’s basically over for me, closing the book on 2009. Now it’s on to basketball and the Celts (and possibly a few Red Claws’ games), and hockey with the Bruins.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Portland, Maine, a haven for foodies

Maine, just like other parts of the country, is fighting to preserve its unique qualities, and not be overrun by homogeneity, and bland corporate ubiquity.Depending on where you go, it seems hit or miss how well the state is doing to maintain its identity.

Portland is Maine’s largest city, and the closest community we have to something remotely urban. With a population of just over 60,000 (230,000 if you include South Portland and the surrounding metro area of Greater Portland), Portland exudes a vibe of a small town, where people still know one another, and yet, offers qualities of cities with much larger populations.

I’ve always had a special affinity for Portland, dating back to my high school years when a trip to the Old Port was special, and felt somewhat decadent, especially for a small town kid who had his sights on leaving his hometown in the dust, at some point. In high school, a night on the town, catching a show at the Cumberland County Civic Center, and eating at one of the many restaurants that dotted the Old Port, even back in the late 70s, was a real treat for me and my friends.

Fast forward 30 years and Portland has recently been honored with recognition and accolades from a well-known food magazine, as well as America’s newspaper of record for its abundant eateries, and great local food.

Bon Appetit voted Portland “America’s Foodiest Small Town” in August, and then, a few weeks later, Julia Moskin, food writer for the New York Times visited town, and wrote an effusive piece about the city and its decade-long ascendancy as a food destination. Moskin highlighted many of the city’s eateries, bakeries, and markets where fresh, local food is the norm, not the exception. She also recognized the many top-notch chefs that populate the city’s food scene.

There’s always a danger to take for granted the special qualities that exist in one’s own backyard, thinking that the grass is greener, and life more robust elsewhere, especially in bigger cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. While these places certainly have elements that are impossible for Portland to compete with, for a small city, it arguably has an amazing array of local food options, and restaurants committed to local farmers and food producers.

Moskin’s article struck a chord with me. Some of the restaurants she mentioned, like Hugo’s and Fore Street, I was familiar with. I also knew about Rabelais, Portland’s bookstore for foodies, located on Middle Street. There were many more places, however that I knew little about. After reading the article, and discussing it with my wife, we’ve decided that we are going to make an effort to get into Portland more often, and sample some of these places, even on our small budget devoted to out-to-eat options.

With fall firmly ensconced, and Maine farms producing a rich bounty full of abundant choices for local food lovers, we headed into the city to sample the offerings of Saturday’s Portland Farmer’s Market at beautiful Deering Oaks Park.
Before hitting The Oaks, we buzzed over the Casco Bay Bridge to partake of bagels at 158 Pickett Street Café, one of several places Moskin mentioned in her article.

Bagels are a food item that I used to eat almost daily. Back when I went low-carb, following the prescription of Dr. Atkins, I called bagels, “wheels of death,” and even though I’ve abandoned the low-carb path, bagels have never found their way back to my daily menu of foods.

158 Pickett Street is located near SMCC, about a mile and a half down Broadway, after turning left off the bridge. Moskin mentioned Chef Josh Potocki’s “long-fermented water-boiled bagels,” and chili-garlic cream cheese to top them off, and Mary and I decided to break our bagel fast and sample one each.

Arriving just after 9:00, there was a line of six, or seven people ahead of us in the non-descript building just a stones throw away from the SMCC ballfield that Mark used to play on during his fall baseball days during high school.

The place had a hipster vibe, with staff sporting an abundant variety of colorful tattoos. The line moved quickly and we placed our order; I ordered a poppy seed bagel and Mary had one with everything, both toasted and topped with the above-mentioned spread, which the cashier assured us was “a good choice.”

[Willard Beach, bordering the SMCC campus]

We took our order to go and drove a few hundred yards, parking and walking down to Willard Beach bordering the backside of the campus. The bagels, both about the size of a baby’s head, were heavenly. The chili-garlic cream cheese was the perfect complement to the crusty bagel, which had its own abundant flavor.

From South Portland, we headed back across the bay and into downtown Portland, bound for Deering Oaks and Saturday’s assortment of fresh local produce.

With the sun just peeking through the clouds, we enjoyed walking through a variety of booths filled with root vegetables, arugala, fresh heirloom tomatoes, and locally-produced artisanal cheeses. We had discussed creating our evening meal from what we found at the market, and we didn’t leave disappointed.

With tomatoes, turnips, arugala, fresh basil, as well as mozzarella, and feta cheese made from goat’s milk (for tomorrow’s tomato feta salad), we then were off for Brighton Avenue and Rosemont Market.

Rosemont Market is a local market of the finest order. Committed to carrying the freshest in local foods, ranging form locally-grown produce, to meat from local producers, as well as freshly baked bread they bake themselves, this neighborhood market provides a cornucopia of what’s right about Portland’s Buy Local movement.

We picked up steak and sausage for the grill, both from Maine producers, as well as a bottle of moderately-priced red wine, a snack of polenta pennies (cookies), and a Moroccan chicken soup, which was our lunch (it came with a large, doughy roll that was similar to the mouth-watering rolls my German grandmother used to bake), and we were on our way home, and an afternoon bike ride.

Tonight’s dinner was a celebration of our day; a rich bounty that came from Maine’s often, too-rocky soil, and local farmers that continue to buck the blandness of over-produced, factory farms, where too much of our nation’s food ends up originating from.

I feel fortunate that Mary and I live so close to Portland, and we’re planning to embrace this benefit by sampling local food, whether we pick it up and cook it for ourselves, or allow one of Portland’s skilled chefs to work their magic and prepare it.

[Sign for Portland Farmers' Market]

[One of the Farmers' Market's wagons]

[Abundant veggies from local farmers]

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Jesus rules the airwaves

My drives up and down the interstate afford me ample time to think, ponder a variety of subjects, and listen to the radio (and alternately, books on CD). During these chunks of time, I occasionally wonder why Maine as a state continues to languish economically, culturally (with the exception of Portland, primarily), and whether a new administration in Augusta will make any significant difference.

Once I drift north of Augusta and begin to lose the southern Maine radio stations, there isn’t much for variety on the FM side of things. Jim Rome’s national sports talk show can be picked up via WJJB-96.3, aka, The Big Jab, an FM blowtorch with a signal that travels up and down the I-95 corridor. I can only handle so much of Romey, however, as his schtick tends to irritate in large quantities, at least according to my tastes. There is public radio, and MPBN, which I do listen to semi-regularly, and actually caught this interesting piece tonight on my way home, about Lewiston, home base for the work that I do.

Since my schedule this week has been extremely hectic, I haven’t been able to find the 15 minutes, or so required to squeeze a trip to the Maine State Library in on my lunch break, or passing through Augusta on my way home. Hence, I haven’t been able to pick up an interesting book to listen to. As a result, I’ve had to imbibe more bad radio than I prefer.

Interestingly, I discovered something today I had never noticed before—mid-Maine has a significant number of Xian radio stations. I’m not quite sure why this is. Is this part of Maine in the throes of a religious revival that I’m not aware of? Do the residents of Augusta, Waterville, and Fairfield have a greater propensity for the rock knock-offs of bands/artists with names like Newsboys, Addison Road, Tobymac, and Kutlass?

These were all artists that I heard on some station called K-Love, located at 102.1 (WKVZ) on the FM dial, and originating out of Bangor.

According to K-Love’s information pack (which you are required to download in order to access), they don’t play commercials (because they know their listeners don’t want them), are “positive and encouraging,” and they can “help you make a difference.”

Actually, K-Love’s information pack left me nonplussed, and unimpressed--basically, it contains little substantive information about the station.

I only listened to K-Love for about 15-20 minutes in truth, and scanned the website briefly, but my experience with Xianity prompts me to take a stab at pegging this station as catering to a segment of so-called believers that I’ve run into that I define as “consumerist Christians.” They have both feet firmly planted “in the world” of American consumerism, and their faith places a sanitized veneer over an overly materialistic approach to life. They tend to equate being a good Xian with being a Republican, see Sarah Palin as someone to admire (her new book is being distributed to Xian book stores via mega-religious publisher, Zondervan), are by-and-large anti-abortion, and probably support the Yes on 1 position on Maine’s upcoming, and overly divisive gay rights referendum.

Another station specializing in watered-down rock with spiritually-oriented lyrics is 99.3, WWWA, which the FCC indicates is based in Winslow and is affiliated with the Worship Radio Network.

From the station’s website, which like K-Love’s, again provides very little beyond generic information about WWWA, or the WRN; I did learn, however, that “all radio stations at Worship Radio Network are non-profit, 501c3, non-commercial radio stations. Most radio commercial radio stations rely on sell ads to make a profit. We ask you to invest in the station financially so we can bring you more of what YOU want without all the clutter.”

If you prefer Bible teaching to music, you can pull in 99.5, which is listed as WJCX, and apparently emanates from Pittsfield. This station is affiliated with the Calvary Chapel churches, and featured a variety of scripture-based teaching programs each time I tuned in.

Calvary Chapel is a non-denominational church, which claims ties to evangelicalism. They were founded in 1965 in Southern California. The original Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa was pastored by Chuck Smith, operating as a cross-cultural missions organization that bridged the "generation gap" that existed during the Vietnam War period. Calvary Chapel became a hub for the Jesus People movement that was prevalent at the time, particularly on the west coast.

Calvary Chapel pioneered a less formal and contemporary approach in its worship and public meetings. For example, it did outreaches on the beach and baptisms in the Pacific Ocean. Much of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has it roots in Calvary Chapel worship music. Additionally, Calvary Chapel features a “rolling commentary” style of preaching, centered on the biblical text each sermon is based upon. Their style of worship, and emphasis on contemporary styles of worship music makes me think they are very similar to the Vineyard Churches, which can be found dotting Maine’s landscape in Lewiston, Mechanic Falls, Westbrook, and a few other communities.

I’m not quite sure what this concentration of Xianity means north of Augusta. I did find it a bit odd, but then again, I don’t find much about organized religion beneficial, or personally edifying. Others may have a different take on this than I do.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

First Dempsey Challenge is a hit

Over the course of a lifetime, we look back to events, and periods of time that represent turning points for us, crucial moments. Sometimes these moments are personal, other times they connect us with something larger than ourselves.

When I decided back in June that I was tired of being overweight, out of shape, and neglectful of maintaining a modicum of fitness, I didn’t think that I’d be riding in an event that would be a major fundraiser for cancer awareness, supporting families and cancer survivors. I also didn’t even consider that I’d be part of a team made up mainly of family members and riding in memory of my late father in law, someone who had a real impact, albeit a delayed one, on my life.

Patrick Dempsey is an A-list celebrity, best known as Dr. Derek Shepherd, on Grey’s Anatomy. What many people outside of Maine don’t know is that he grew up in tiny Buckfield, Maine, a community that is easily missed, unless you have a reason to turn off busy Route 4 and head west into the center of town. Like similar communities in rural Maine, the economic changes and shifts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have all but removed any vestiges of local trade and industry. The town is now a bedroom community for Lewiston/Auburn to the southeast.

While Dempsey’s star has risen far beyond the tiny hamlet where he grew up, he obviously hasn’t forgotten his roots. Like almost all of us that have been touched by cancer in some way, this vicious disease struck his mother in 1997, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was successfully treated, but the cancer returned twice, requiring further treatment.

His mother is doing fine today, living an active, healthy life, but Dempsey wanted to do something more for others. His own experience with his mother helped him to realize that access to good, reliable resources are essential in helping not only the cancer patient, but also members of the family, as well as caretakers. Because of this experience, Dempsey decided to give something important back to the very community that helped his mother through her journey to recovery and health. As a result, The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing was born.

In an attempt to generate funding, as well as continue to raise awareness about the center and what it has to offer, Dempsey announced in early 2009, The Dempsey Challenge, a bike ride of varying lengths—100, 50, 25, and 10 mile rides, as well as a run and a walk as part of the festivities.

Celebrities are notorious for lending their name to causes, and having little, or nothing to do with the event. Occasionally, they make a cameo appearance, the crowd ogles, and goes “ga, ga,” and that’s about it. The star gets some positive press, and hopefully a bit of money makes its way into the till of whatever organization is running the benefit event.

Not only did Patrick Dempsey do more than make a token appearance and then dart out, he was an active participant, riding 50 miles, and bringing along fellow cycling rock stars, George Hincapie, and David Zabriskie to accompany him on his ride. In fact, Dempsey, a competitive cyclist, was out on Maine’s back roads, along with world class athletes Zabriskie, and Hincapie on Saturday during the day’s steady rain and occasional downpours, warming up for The Dempsey Challenge ride, happening on Sunday.

Our own Team Tarazzmatazz contingent were in the parking lot by about 7:00 a.m. and it was a good thing, as the parking area on the corner of Lincoln and Main was nearly full and about 20 minutes later, was at capacity. As my wife and team captain, Mary said, “cyclists get out early.”

After Saturday’s torrential rains, and late night lightning and thunderstorms, the fact that it was not raining, and merely overcast was a portent positive for riding. The mood was festive and by 7:30, there were already long lines for the row of Porta Potties lined up against the former Grand Trunk Railroad Depot, on Beech Street.

As the 8:00 a.m. starting time approached, a couple of thousand cyclists were jammed into the staging area along Oxford Street, waiting for the 100-milers to go out, and then the 50-mile group (which included Dempsey and Co.), and then the three biking members of our team, riding the 25-miler. Even a slight delay of five minutes couldn’t dampen the positive energy of the riders.

[staging area packed tight before the start of The Dempsey Challenge ride]

I was feeling a few butterflies, which reminded me of what it once felt like, back in the day, when I was still pitching semi-pro baseball, and that feeling in the pit of my stomach that always arrived minutes right before I threw my first pitch.

Mary, Rosie (a friend from work), and I were eager to be on our way, headed out on the course, along with others nearby. About 8:20, we got the word that the 25-mile group could begin moving forward, and like water surging over a dam, our group was off.

The course was very well designed, and the initial part of the route was marvelous, with Auburn’s finest making sure that the early stage of our ride was free of automobile interference. There were a few challenging hills early in the ride, but by-and-large, the route was not overly taxing for Mary and I, since we’ve been riding most of the summer, and training religiously for this ride since July. It was really special to see so many people out on their lawns, and along the early parts of the ride, cheering the riders on, shouting encouragement, and offering personal messages via handmade signs.

Not only were there 3,500 participants biking, running, and walking, there were also several hundred volunteers, all offering a smile, a word of encouragement, and even a drink, or a snack.

One of the takeaways from The Dempsey Challenge’s maiden voyage is that it couldn’t have been located in a better community. To those coming in from outside, like Mary, a representative from Amgen, one of the event’s major sponsors (along with Mercedez-Benz), her first experience in Lewiston was an overwhelmingly positive one. As we chatted in line, waiting to pick up our lobster dinner, she told me how impressed she was with Lewiston, the enthusiasm of the participants, and how beautiful she found the early fall foliage. Hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, and having grown up in Portland, Oregon, Mary told me that she was very impressed during her first visit, including a wonderful meal on Saturday, at Fishbones, one several great restaurants that now dot the community.

Lewiston and surrounding communities have embraced this first time event with a great deal of enthusiasm. To have 3,500 sign up to take part the very first year, and to have assemble such a strong organization enabling such a great event the first time makes me excited for next year’s 2nd go round, as it can only get better.

Today was special for me, personally, as the day was infused with meaning as a member of Team Tarazzmatazz. The family connection was important, as all of us were participating in memory of Joe, Mary’s dad. Also, Mary and I had gotten fit through training to ride, with me losing 40 pounds, and Mary 25.Lastly, the fact that a local boy that’s found fame far beyond his hometown, yet hasn’t forgotten where he came from, and even that despite somewhat dire weather predictions, only a few sprinkles fell on the festivities, made this one of the best events I’ve participated in for a long time.

I leave you with the saying that Mary had printed on the front of our Team Tarazzmatazz t-shirts we wore, in memory of Joe T, “remember the good times.” This is one time that I’ll savor and keep with me for years to come.

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[Mary and I after our ride]

[Participants enjoying themselves at Simard-Payne Police Memorial Park]

Friday, October 02, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-The October stage edition

Baseball and rock and roll are interchangeable in my way of thinking. Many an athlete wishes he was a rock star, and many a rock star would love to swap his axe for a bat and wield it with the ability of a hitter like Manny, or ARod.

Over the course of 162 games, there are classic duels and battles, some of them epic in scope, much like songs in an artist's catalog, at least back when albums ruled the rock and roll world, pre iPod. Some of these songs are classic and something you can listen to over and over. There are also those songs, like a 12-0 stinker by your favorite team that you'd prefer to skip over, but true fans battle through.

Summer's gone, and the lingering fragrance of it's bloom is kept alive for those fortunate enough to have a baseball team headed to the postseason. New England's team, the Boston Red Sox, got in via the Wild Card once more. They'll do battle with the Halos from Southern California. Fans in New York, Philly, Colorado, Los Angeles (California is doubly blessed), St. Louis, and either Detroit or Minnesota will have their summers extended by the league championship series and their hopes of making it to the Fall Classic, aka the World Series.

In the spirit of playoff baseball, I bring you this week's baseball playoff version of Shuffle Play Friday.

The Baseball Project (Steve Wynn)-Ted Fucking Williams/Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

If Steve Wynn was a baseball player, he’d be the cagey veteran that keeps reinventing himself. As a young player, he might have been a combination of power and speed. As his career progressed, and his wheels no longer allowed him to swipe bases at will, like in his 20s, he would have learned to adapt, gravitate to a new position, and still help his team onward, often displaying his best during October’s trip to the big stage.

From his early days as an influential member of LA’s Paisley Underground in the 80s, leading The Dream Syndicate, through various incarnations, Wynn’s music has always maintained an integrity that was about the music, rather than merely cashing in, commercially.

In 2008, Wynn formed The Baseball Project, with REM’s Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, formerly of Seattle’s The Young Fresh Fellows, as well as serving as REM’s fifth member for the past decade, or more, and Linda Pitmon, Wynn’s wife.

The group’s first outing, Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, besides its great baseball-related title, weaves its way through baseball's past with songs about the game’s great players (like Teddy Ballgame and Willie Mays), as well as obscure players like Harvey Haddix. Do you know Haddix’s baseball claim to fame, besides once serving as a Red Sox pitching coach?

Here's a great interview with Wynn and McCaughey talking about baseball, and songs about baseball.

Bruce Springsteen-Glory Days/Born in the U.S.A.

While my rock and roll tastes run to the alternative side of the fence, Springsteen’s “Glory Days” will always evoke special personal memories for me.

The lyrics about the washed up baseball player that can’t quite get beyond his moment in the sun years ago was me for far too long. The song also stirs up memories of Mark’s senior year, particularly of the College World Series in Appleton, Wisconsin, when Springsteen seemed to be blasting from the speakers on a regular basis.

Plus, could there a more iconic American popular music figure than Bruce Springteen?

Warren Zevon-Bill Lee/Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School

Both Bill Lee and Warren Zevon epitomize the bad boy, renegade figure in their respective fields. It’s only fitting that it would be Zevon that paid homage to Lee in a song.

Back in high school, my friend Dave picked up Zevon’s “Exciteable Boy” and the album became our soundtrack during the summer of 1978, between our sophomore and junior years of high school. I was coming off a breakout season as Lisbon High’s ace pitcher, going 6-0 that spring. That summer, Bill Lee would struggle to win 10 games during his final season in Boston, before being exiled north of the border to toil for Montreal’s Expos. In ’79, he’d win 16 games, but Lee’s freethinking ways, and regular marching to his own beat wore thin and by ’82, “The Spaceman” was out of organized baseball for good, blackballed by its conservative establishment.

Barbara Manning/SF Seals-Dock Ellis/Baseball Trilogy (EP)

Keeping the pitching theme going, particularly left-of-center hurlers, Dock Ellis proved that you don’t need to be left-handed, to hold views, and exhibit behaviors that didn’t exactly ingratiate him to baseball’s powerbrokers.

Ellis was certainly one of baseball's more flamboyant and interesting figures during the seventies. In 1971, he helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates past the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, back when both cities were in the throes of their own baseball glory days. Both cities have fallen on hard times, both baseball-wise, and economically, particularly Pittsburgh, with the Pirates last winning season coming 17 years ago, in 1992, a record for professional sports futility.

Interestingly, that 1971 club that Ellis was a member of had the first all black starting lineup in MLB history with him on the mound.

Manning, a fine singer-songwriter in her own right, named her band after a legendary minor league team that was the pride of San Francisco, before the Giants abandoned New York’s Polo Grounds for the greener pastures of the west coast.

Neil Diamond-Sweet Caroline/Sweet Caroline

I know this is a bit of a stretch for baseball-related songsmithing, but there are few songs that have become attached to a team, like this one is to the Red Sox. A few years back, The Standells "Dirty Water" might have made the cut, but it's a rare occurance at any wedding where this song doesn't get played and a Sox-style sing-a-long doesn't break out, with the requisite refrain, "so good! so good! so good!" emanating from the dance floor.

The song has no connection to the Red Sox, Diamond is not a Boston native, or even a Sox fan for that matter, but come the eighth inning at Fenway, you'll hear this blasting from the Fenway speakers like clockwork.

The regular season is winding down, and the new heroes will step forth on the postseason stage, some unexpected, like an Al Weis, or Gene Tenace, others, like Mr. October, Reggie Jackson will be no surprise.

Go Red Sox!