Saturday, December 31, 2016

Take It Easy

In January of 2016, Glenn Frey passed away. He was the founder of The Eagles, the iconic band who brought us "Take it Easy", "Hotel California", and "Lyin' Eyes". My appreciation of this group grew slowly over the years. When I was a kid, I never knew these songs as Eagles songs. They were just good songs I instantly recognized and liked. When I started to put rock music in context, I learned about this band's towering presence.

So I reeled when I heard the news about Glenn. My main reaction was to learn one of his earliest songs: Take it Easy. It's a common joke that most rock songs are composed of three chords, and in Take it Easy, it's the three easiest: G, C and D. The difficulty of the song lies in the rhythm and strumming patterns, but it is a simple song with evocative lyrics.

Another aspect of the song's beauty is the harmonies. It's not just Glenn's voice on the record. His band harmonizes with him, blending their voices into a whole. I tried to harmonize with myself using GarageBand, and it made me appreciate how songs are built on many layers: music, lyrics and voices.

Probably the thing that surprised me most while I was in this zone was that Glenn didn't originate the song. Singer/songwriter Jackson Browne wrote most of Take it Easy in the early 1970s, but had trouble finishing a verse. Glenn helped him ("It's a girl, my lord, in a flat-bed Ford...") and this is why you'll see Browne/Frey in the credits.

Great music makes an artist last forever. Glenn's music, through The Eagles, will live on and on like all music that has been deemed timeless. In a year filled with bright musical stars passing on (Prince, David Bowie, George Michael) I was most affected by Glenn's. Take it Easy, 2016.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Spoon and Fork

I grew up eating food with a spoon and fork. I'd wield the spoon in the right hand, and the fork in the left hand. A spoon is the exact right utensil for shoveling mounds of food into my mouth. Plus I could use it to measure out soy sauce, which I applied liberally to all the white rice I ate. The edge of the spoon could cut into soft foods, and so the spoon was ready substitute for a knife.

I was probably in middle school when I realized that not everyone ate this way. I'd go over to someone's house, or visit a restaurant, and the place setting featured a knife and a fork. Huh? I remember asking for spoons back then, even at restaurants!

No one made me feel bad about my eating habits, but I knew I was different. I gradually learned that the knife and the fork were the American standard. I began to assimilate. I had to learn the interesting switch of moving the knife to the right hand (my dominant hand) in order to cut with it. I also learned that you shouldn't pile food on your knife, using it as a makeshift spoon.

Different cultures eat food differently: some use chopsticks, some use their hands, and some use a knife and fork to pizza. Some cultures are liberal with spices, some eat fast, some eat slow, and some drink soda before noon. I went with the mantra: "When in Rome, do as the Romans."

One night eating alone at home, I decided to try out the spoon and a fork. It had been many years since I ate this way. As I dug into the food, it felt weird eating "old school" style. I've changed, I thought. And that's not a bad thing.

In the United States, you can exercise your culture. Because of our differences, you also get to see and learn new ways of doing things. Individuality. Observation. Participation. It's how our melting pot is seasoned, simmered, and stirred.

Monday, October 31, 2016

My Crown Fell Out!

I have at least five dental crowns in my mouth. Each crown replaced a tooth that was filled with dental filling back when I was an adolescent. When my dentist said some of these older teeth had tiny cracks, I opted for the course of action she recommended: dental crowns. My first crown was put in 2011.

Crowns are created in a lab, and then cemented into place after the old tooth is removed. After a week of increased sensitivity where they are placed, they feel and act like regular teeth. I only think of them when I go to the dentist and catch a look at my x-ray. Crowns appear brighter than regular teeth.

One time while waiting at the dentist's office in 2011, a patient walked in all jittery. "My crown fell out!" she said. She seemed to be holding something. The staff at reception ushered her into the patient room. "I was chewing gum!" was the last thing I heard her say. I silently hoped that wouldn't happen to me.

However, in 2014 I experienced one of my crowns falling out. I was flossing, and when I pulled up on the floss, it pulled the crown off as well. It was like a pinball in my mouth, but I was able to retrieve it. The doctor was calm when I reached her via her after-hours service. She said I could use Fixodent to temporarily hold it in place. The next weekday she cemented it back.

My latest incident occurred last week. I was trying to eat some really sticky candy someone had brought to the office from overseas. While chewing the candy I felt a sudden coolness on my lower gums. I kept chewing, but this time I felt something very hard in the candy. It wasn't peanuts. I spit it out and saw a tooth. It was my crown!

Eating without pain is something I no longer take for granted. Eating with a temporary crown, or with the sensitivity of a new crown is draining and difficult, since I have to be careful how I chew. The dentist fixed me up yet again so I'm ready for Halloween candy, and I will restrict myself to just the easy to eat treats!

Friday, September 30, 2016


One time while dropping off my daughter at elementary school, I stood and watched an impromptu game of kick ball that some of the kids had started. I was standing in the outfield, along with a bunch of parents and teachers. The kids were taking their kicks quickly so they could beat the morning bell.

One of them kicked the ball flush and it shot into the air. The players instinctively looked up to watch the ball. Parents were chattering among themselves and smaller kids were yelling in the playground but for these older kids, the game was their sole focus.

The ball began its descent and I was directly under it. In a flash, I recalled my own outfield heroics and miscues. I remembered catching a monster fly ball off of one of the better athletes in grade school, but I also recalled botched and misjudged fly balls during my college years playing softball.

I measured the ball in the sky, and shifted a few steps. I raised both my hands and watched the ball come in. When it arrived, I drew it into my chest to secure the catch. The sound returned to the playground. "Here! Here!" I saw a kid waving his hands for ball, and I tossed it to him.

"Out!" he yelled.

I turned around and went to work with a smile on my face.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


My Mom is a fan of FreeCell. Whenever she talks about playing games on the computer, it's invariably FreeCell.

I have fond memories of Mom playing Klondike, also known as old-style Solitaire. When I was growing up, she played with actual cards, shuffling and laying them down in columns on the table. It was a way to pass the time, and I sensed the game's calming influence on her. She was a nurse in a busy city hospital, so relaxing with Solitaire must have been a nice break for her.

FreeCell is different from Klondike, and I don't know how she would have gotten into it aside from the game being on Microsoft Windows. Like Klondike, FreeCell is a card game played by one person. These are known as patience games. Unlike Klondike, however, FreeCell is a game where nearly every hand is winnable. According to the fantastically detailed FreeCell Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, every hand (except one) that Microsoft FreeCell generates is a hand you can win.

My current Solitaire game is by Solebon, and it contains fifty different patience games. One of these is FreeCell, and for the past few weeks I've been playing it. The FAQ is right: many of the games I start I can actually "win". Its statistics report that I've won 13 in a row so far. FreeCell requires you to think a few moves ahead, so there's a bit of strategy involved, which I like.

I think of Mom when I play, how patient she seems to be when she's playing her card games. She had to be patient working as a nurse and raising three boys, so how hard could a card game be? Whenever I get stuck in FreeCell, I wonder what she would do with this hand. My FreeCell has an Easy mode and an Undo button and I can't wait to show her.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: A Rock Star's Autobiography

Over vacation, I finished Joe Perry's autobiography Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith. I remember seeing Joe Perry on a news clip a few years ago. This aging guitar god was talking about living in Vermont, and I remember being surprised at the time: he lives in Vermont?

Then a few months ago there was a lengthy and detailed article about the Run-DMC song "Walk This Way" (by Geoff Edgers for the Washington Post, May 18). In addition to the oral history recollections from people involved in that classic song, there was also video of Joe Perry playing that signature riff in a crowded studio.

In Joe Perry's book, I learned all this and more about this rock group's humble beginnings, their long road to success, their swift fall from the top, and their rebirth after getting clean. There's lots of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll in the pages of this enjoyable book (co-written with David Ritz), but there's also a lot of love, heartache and redemption as well.

Joe grew up in Massachusetts and spent summer vacations in Vermont. He was not a good student, which left him and his parents disappointed. He originally wanted to be a marine biologist, but the thought of going to college was painful to him. His remaining ambition was to learn to play the electric guitar, and in this endeavor he completely succeeded.

I enjoyed reading was how hard working Aerosmith was at the very start of their career. In the early 1970s, they played in high school and college parties, before they began playing at clubs, theaters and eventually arenas. Joe's difficult relationship with front-man Steve Tyler is captured throughout the book as well. The band's difficulty with managers is also described. Being a world-renowned rock band is not all glitz and glamor. Success is hard-won and easily lost.

I really liked this book. It would probably help to listen to some of their music before reading this book, but chances are you've heard their signature riffs (Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion, Same Old Song and Dance, Dude Looks Like a Lady). That lead guitar talking to you is Joe Perry's, and his biography is a study in being steadfast, persistent, and passionate.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Me and My AC

Every year around this time I go through the effort of installing two air conditioners. They are identical units (Kenmore Model 580.76100), both purchased in the 1990s, and both very heavy. It's the heaviest thing I lift in the entire year.

Two things improved in how I've handled this yearly chore.

The first thing was to keep the upstairs unit upstairs. I don't remember when I started doing this, but it had to have been very early. When we first moved into our house, I kept both A/C units in the basement, which resulted in me carrying one of them up two flights of stairs! I now store the upstairs unit in a closet right next to the window its installed in. Now I only have to lift it up to the window sill.

The second thing was to use an old toy wagon to roll the A/C on the floor. Before, when I was younger and stronger, I could crab-walk the unit from the corner of the basement, up the stairs, then to our dining room window. This heavy lifting does a number on my back! With the little wagon, the only lift I do is up a single flight of stairs. Once upstairs, I take the wagon and roll the A/C to the window. I started using the wagon in five years ago.

Every year my technique for installing the air conditioners becomes more refined. I take notes. I use work gloves. I have become familiar with the unit's bizarre center of gravity, which helps in the lift. During the Olympics, when I watch weightlifting, I wish one of those competitors could help me when I have to mount and unmount my air conditioners.

I'll be exploring mini-movers to help with this task in the future. Or maybe I'll just find a home with built-in air conditioning.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Lost Hiker

In today's digital age, it seems nearly impossible to get lost anymore. The recent story about Geraldine Largay reminds us, however, that you can still get fatally lost as a hiker.

In July 2013, she went off the path of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. A search crew was dispatched as soon as she missed her expected arrival date, but the search was in vain. Her remains were found only two years later (N44 59.011, W70 24.099)! Based on a report by the Maine Warden Service [PDF], she was just 30 minutes away from the nearest outpost.

The speculation is that Ms. Largay needed to use the bathroom, and stepped off the trail to do so. When she attempted to return, she lost her orientation, and was instantly lost. How dense must the woods be to get disoriented like that? I sometimes walk the small conservation lands near my house, and even in the middle of the area I can still sight a landmark.

Ms. Largay tried to use her cell phone to send a TXT for help, but cell towers are not always available in the wilderness. Serious hikers can now use satellite based devices like PLBs or Satellite Messengers. These look pricey, but if I were planning a hike on the AT, I would invest in one.

I am drawn to thinking what I would do in her situation. She set up a camp, and used a reflective blanket as a marker. She tried to set a fire. She wrote. When I get temporarily lost driving around in my car, the sensation of being lost can quickly become overwhelming. Would I remember to stay calm, and gather my wits?

Many hikers are learning lessons from Ms. Largay's unexpected demise. The main one: be prepared!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Fixing My Knee Pain

For the last two years, I've been living with hip and knee soreness. I shrugged it off at first. When I ice skate in the Winter, I usually fall once or twice as I figure out my edges again. Of late, the knee soreness graduated to full-on knee pain. It presents itself when I climb up and down stairs.

As the months wore on, the pain never went away. I went to my primary doctor, who at first suggested a regimen of ibuprofen three times a day. This helped for a few weeks, but it was fleeting. As soon as I stopped, the pain blossomed again.

The next time I saw the doctor, he suggested a knee specialist. "These guys could even give you a shot that removes the pain," he said. Later on, my wife asked "Have you ever seen the needles that they use to administer those kind of shots?"

I finally visited the knee specialist this month. Their office took a few X-rays, and when the doctor walked into the room, I was brimming in anticipation. "Our X-rays show nothing wrong!" he announced.

He examined my knee, twisting my leg forwards and backwards and to the sides. He declared I had Chondromalacia Patella. "Your lateral facet has some wear and tear." He suggested I start doing some Iliotibial Band (ITB) stretches. He also said I should do some simple wall squats.

On YouTube (my virtual doctor), I learned a very basic ITB stretch, which involves stretching each side of your body into a curve. I felt a lot of tightness at first. I kept at it for a few days, skeptical that it would lead to anything, and anticipating needing yet another specialist. However, a few days ago, as I climbed the stairs in my house, I suddenly noticed my knee was completely quiet. The pain had gone away!

So now I'm trying to maintain a routine of ITB stretches in the morning and evening. The pain reawakens now and again, but the fact that simple stretching alleviates it is a miracle to me. The ITB connects the hip to the knee, which explains why my hip seemed affected at first.

Maybe I'll try to find an off-season rink, to really test things out!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The New Social Media

Lately, I've been experimenting with Periscope and Snapchat.

Both of these platforms are new social media, even though today's teenagers have probably been using them since middle school. Snapchat came out in 2011. Periscope came out last year (and has since been acquired by Twitter).

Snapchat is multi-media chat. You and your friends send 'snaps' to one another. These snaps are video, pictures, and even plain old text. In Snapchat, you can also draw and label and add emoji to your snaps, adding to the whimsy. Snaps are between two people, but you can post snaps into Stories which all your friends can read.

Periscope is live video broadcast from your smart phone. You can be at the beach or at the mall or even at home and viewers can see whatever you point your camera at. Viewers can chat with you and other viewers on your scope, though they're limited to text and emoji.

Both feature disappearing content. Anything that you post on these platforms is temporary. This simple concept introduces a profound change in how we express ourselves electronically. After your snap has been viewed on Snapchat, it disappears. After your scope has been up for 24 hours on Periscope, it disappears. Snapchat asked "what if we rethought the whole idea of the assumed permanence of social media?" What if?

(It should be pointed out that snaps can be saved and Periscope videos can be found, provided you're willing to perform a few technical steps.)

There's a certain lightness I feel posting updates to these new media. I'm posting true slices of my life. I think I'm more whimsical on these platforms. There's less self-editing. I've made rules of conduct for myself on social media but they don't seem as pertinent on SnapChat or Periscope.

As I said: I'm experimenting. If you're on these platforms, look for me at 'rickumali'.

Monday, February 29, 2016

My Three Best Movies about Journalism

Last week, I finally watched Spotlight, the movie about the Boston Globe journalists who wrote about the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal and cover-up in Boston. I remember reading those articles back in 2002, and I worried about how the subject matter would be tackled in a film. After I finished it, I realized I now could add it to my short list of best movies about journalism.

"All the President's Men" (1976). I blogged about this movie in 2003, but I have certainly watched it again since then. The power of journalism to keep a presidency in check is on full display here. Also on display was the doggedness of journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Berstein (Dustin Hoffman). I love watching this film, a classic 70s movie. Possibly my favorite part is seeing Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) in his tux with the draft of an article in his hand, saying "run that baby!" to Woodward and Bernstein.

"The Insider" (1999). The headline actor is Al Pacino, who plays 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman. It's fascinating to watch Mr. Bergman juggle multiple stories, and fight his management at 60 Minutes. The star is Russell Crowe, however. His performance as a big tobacco scientist-turned-whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand is mesmerizing. I also think this is Michael Mann's best movie, his lush style amplifying the stakes. Super movie.

"Spotlight" (2015). In the movie, we see how the reporters put together the list of priests who were abusing children. The four of them each took several directories of Massachusetts priests, and cross-referenced all the names against certain key words that suggested a reassignment due to abuse. Set to music, in montage style with fast cuts, it is easy to see how tedious work ultimately produces an important result. I loved how movie made such details captivating. I was glad Spotlight won the 2015 Best Picture Oscar!

Honorable mentions:

"Kill the Messenger" (2014). Jeremy Renner portrays journalist Gary Webb. Gary begins to uncover a conspiracy between the CIA using illegal drugs to raise funds for the contras of Nicaragua. As with the Insider and All the President's Men, there are scenes in court houses, clandestine meetings with nefarious people, and a sense of foreboding and dread.

"State of Play" (2009). This is a fictional movie, but it deserves a mention. The movie stars Russell Crowe as a print journalist and Rachel McAdams (from Spotlight) as a web journalist. The movie, more than the others, tried to address the difference between old and new journalism. The movie is based on the "State of Play" TV mini-series (2003) from the BBC.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My 2015 Books and Movies

I finished 34 books last year. I posted them on Goodreads.

I read a bunch of books that were made into popular (and current) movies: The Martian (Andy Weir), The Fifth Wave (Rick Yancey), LA Confidential (James Ellroy), Still Alice (Lisa Genova), Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates), Black Mass (Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill) and The Finest Hours (Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman). I also read some bona fide literary prize-winners: Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon).

Of my 2015 list, the book that stayed with me throughout the year was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs). It's the non-fiction story of a young inner-city kid from Newark, NJ, who has received a golden ticket: a free ride to Yale University. He graduates, but doesn't entirely give up his inner-city mentality. He died in a drug-related shooting.

Jeff weaves a fine narrative about Robert's upbringing. He presents the good and the bad in a measured and neutral manner, which compounds the impact of Robert's decisions. It's one thing to know that certain decisions are bad, but it's another to consider whether one is capable of doing anything else. It's a superb book, and one that I highly recommend.

In 2015, I watched 23 movies. The Martian, Inside Out, and The Peanuts Movie were favorites, but the one jaw-dropping movie for me was Interstellar. It's a huge regret that I didn't see this in the theater.