An Old-School Ladder Over the Wall of Deafness

Necessity’s son, invention, has a lesser-known brother. Around the house, they call him Re, but his full name is Reinvention. He quietly specializes in finding the remaining use in things thought to be defunct.

This is not how I do it, but this is how it feels.

This is not how I do it, but this is how it feels.

My parents, ages 90 (my Dad) and 87, now live in a nursing home near Milwaukee. My brother lives within 10 minutes; it’s a good situation for them, no matter how much my Mom complains about the food. They apologized for not coming to Florida to be near us instead, but they said they had no idea how long we’d be here. Indeed, we threatened to move back to Pennsylvania once, and another time my company talked about moving me to Seattle. Neither happened, but I could understand their concerns. No apologies were necessary.

But a gulf wider than 1,200 miles opened between us recently. Both my parents are losing their hearing; my Dad’s is almost entirely gone. Hearing aids, as anyone with elderly parents knows, are an inexact science. Where phones are concerned, their utility can be even more questionable. The upshot is a lot of “WHAT?” and “Speak right into the phone!” from their end and top-of-my-lungs, louder-than-a-ballgame yelling on mine. In the end, frustration closed the line. They couldn’t hear; I couldn’t make myself heard…so we just stopped talking.

I missed their voices. But what to do?

Simple. Go back to the old way. Yes, I began to write letters.

No, they aren’t quill-pen musings in my flowing longhand. Rather, they’re 16-point Times New Roman spread over as many as six pages, with photos interspersed. Naturally, they’re very grandchild-centric; my folks want to know all about what my 13-year-old son is up to. But they’re also downright prosaic, even bland, full of talk about the interminable winter up there and a nice pot roast I made last Sunday.

And why not? It’s the look into the daily normalcy that reconnects my parents with my life, even as theirs declines. My Dad did get me on the phone the other night, his land line (cell phones are impossible), and we were able to converse enough for him to thank me for the letters.

“Your mother has been down to my room to read the last one at least twice already,” he said in his old, but still firm, baritone.

I smiled.

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m gonna keep ’em coming.”

Our connection, reinvented.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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When God Closes a Door, He Opens for Lunch

I was upset when the Golf Channel dismissed me after more than 12 years, a formative time in the network’s history when my efforts enriched a great many people out of all proportion to what I was being paid. So it goes. But I also liked the job, and in the months after it was clear that my contract would not be renewed, it was hard not to feel negative. So it also goes.

In the throes of perceived loss, no one likes to hear that old saw about a setback being an opportunity or a blessing in some odd get-up. Doesn’t make it any less true, though, even if you believe for awhile that when God closes a door, he opens a window, and it’s -10ºF and windy out.

I have since moved into a much better situation, which has a lot of benefits. Not just the payroll deduction kind: I mean the lifestyle stuff. My company is in Japan, with a North American headquarters in Vancouver. In the age of airplanes, email, and Skype, it hasn’t been necessary to move. So I have stayed in the Orlando, Florida area, and I work out of an office in my home with only occasional travel.

I was out of soba noodles, but we did have this really good leftover sticky Japanese Nishiki rice. Oishi desu!

I was out of soba noodles, but we did have this really good leftover sticky Japanese Nishiki rice. Oishi desu! (Tofu upper left with sriracha; steamed bok choy)

This enables me to be much more involved in the life of my family, especially my son, an only child who is 13. It’s always important to be there for your children, but as a former boy myself, this seems to me to be a crucial stage. As he learns to be a man, surely his mother is a big influence. But I have my role too: Example Man. I’m glad to do it. I went a lot of exciting places around the world when Joseph was young, but I also missed a lot. Augusta National was all well and good, but I would have liked to have seen him roll over that first time.

There are little things, too. As we know, they have a habit of adding up to big things. One is lunch. I meet friends for lunch occasionally, but the best restaurant I know is still right downstairs. And I’m the chef.  When I do travel, it’s often to Asia, where I have been fortunate to discover whole new universes of taste and texture.

As a result, on any given weekday, lunch may be soba noodles, braised tofu, and steamed bok choy, all topped off with Thai fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, and a healthy shot of sriracha-sauce heat. We have bamboo steamers from the Asian grocery, inexpensive workhorses of the kitchen which, when placed over boiling water in a wok, transform all manner of vegetables and leftover rice into hot-and-happy entrées. I’ve gotten so good at this that my wife will call from wherever she is and tell me she’ll be home for lunch. Throw on some extra udon.

As we found when we started making homemade pasta after an Italy trip, what once seemed arduous is really no big deal. Here’s a sample step-by-step:

1. Get a block of extra-firm tofu. In the morning or the night before, unpack it, drain it, put it in a baking pan, salt it, and bake it for an hour at 350º. Let it cool.
2. At lunchtime, wash and chop a bunch of bok choy. Put it in the bamboo steamer. Get water boiling in the wok. Plunk that bamboo badboy on there. Count five minutes.
3. Carefully remove the steamer (very hot) and throw three ounces of soba noodles into the water in the wok. Count four minutes.
4. Put a teaspoon of sesame oil and a shot of sriracha sauce in a bowl. Slice half the tofu into chunks; save the rest for later, unless your wife is coming home for lunch.
5. Drain the finished noodles; toss ’em in the bowl that has the oil/sriracha combination. Swirl ’em up.
6. Put the bok choy on top of the noodles and the tofu on top of that. Sprinkle with fish sauce or soy sauce, and squeeze a lime all over it.
7. Dig in. You’re about to eat around 500 calories of delicious stuff, chocked with protein, and you will be full.

Kinda all came together, didn’t it? Lost a job, gained a new one, learned some Asian cuisine, and I get to enjoy it. And share it with my family.

The next loss, whenever it comes, will likely smart. So it goes.

But I’ll make sure to have noodles and sriracha sauce around. So that goes.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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The Orchestra Inside My Head

The other night, I was training with two of my rowing buddies on the erg (ergometer, a rowing machine with a seat that slides back and forth, mimicking the action of a real racing shell). We were doing a long piece, one that takes about 40 minutes, rowing at a reasonably challenging but steady rate. In other words, not much was going on.

“Oooookey-doke,” one of my crew mates said about 10 minutes in. “I’m bored.”

We all were. But finish, we must.

The great Leonard Bernstein performed in my head often.

The great Leonard Bernstein performed in my head often.

“Pick your favorite album side and hum it in your head,” I suggested. “It’s the only way.” And we all fell silent again, with only the zinging of the oar handle’s chain that connects it to the whirring flywheel and fan providing soundtrack. I damned myself for not bringing that little wireless speaker that hooks up with my phone, allowing me to play music. Then I mentally launched into side 1 of Billy Joel’s The Stranger.

There was a time when I would employ this little survival tactic frequently. Long bus rides home from college, interminable airport waits, boring lectures, the tail end of a shift at a menial teenage job — I would zip them along by imagining, completely in my mind, without singing out loud, entire pieces of music. Every note, every nuance, all the lyrics (where in my brain do they live? And why can’t I find that folder and monetize it?), in exact tempo.

And now I was trying it again to cruise through 30-some minutes of erg death…and…well, it’s not the same as it was. There’s static on the line. Picket-fencing, verses dropping out, rushed sections. The whistling end of the title track of The Stranger went too fast, and all of a sudden I was halfway through “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” Hm.

I soldiered on, mentally, and got through 10,000 meters on the erg and most of the album. But no question, it’s harder than it used to be. I know why. It’s the seamy back end of technology, the curse of availability. We can, and do, listen to music just about anywhere, any time these days. It lives on the cloud, it can be brought down to anywhere. And then there’s our hyper-busy schedules. Gone are the days when you had to set aside a half hour to just sit. And listen. And do nothing else.

C'mon, Billy. Give.

C’mon, Billy. Give.

What a shame. For whether it was Bach, Leonard Bernstein, or Billy Joel, I used to do that as a kid, and nearly every day. I developed a prodigious musical memory that helped me do everything from get the lawn mowed to get to sleep without trouble. Now — with an adult schedule and music worked in too much around the edges and not enough as the main attraction — that memory is starting to fade.

I wonder…is it too late? Might not 20 minutes a day, off by myself with earbuds and no distractions — might not that be enough to strike up the band again?

I think I have time to find out.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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The Stories Behind a Million Doors

Everyone’s got one to tell, but we’re usually all so busy writing our own stories that there’s no time to listen to anyone else’s. Fact o’ life.

I used to ride to work in Chicago on the Metra train, what was then the Chicago Northwestern, now the Union Pacific NW line. As we zipped from Arlington Heights through Des Plaines, Park Ridge, Clybourn and a dozen other stations, I would watch the backs of houses and buildings go by. Windows shrouded in curtains or starkly reflecting the steely winter sky. Moving too fast to see any activity inside, if there were any to be seen. What goes on in there, I wondered. How many hearts beat behind that portal, and where are they bound?

Once in awhile, you get the chance to find out. My friend Sally asked if I would like to be introduced to her neighbor, the luthier.

“You mean he really makes guitars?” I said. “And lutes?”

“Oh, you should see all the things he does,” she said.

Bob Desmond in his workshop with a guitar in progress

Bob Desmond in his workshop with a guitar in progress

How could I refuse? I’m glad I didn’t. Bob Desmond is a Bostonian (closer to the seaside town of Scituate, actually) who spent many years shooting photographs for Walt Disney World, then working as a freelance photographer. His early training was in photography, but he almost went to music school, the famous Berklee School in Boston. Music never left him. When Disney was over, he began to apply his easy manner and inestimable patience to making guitars. A garage full of well-ordered tools and machinery serves as his workshop, in addition to an interior room where some more of the work is done. Because Bob works with Brazilian rosewood and other stunningly beautiful woods, both house and garage have to be humidity-controlled.

“They’re all different, these instruments,” he explains. “Just as you and I and anyone else are largely the same — kidneys, lungs, the things humans have — but each of us is a unique person. Same with guitars, and their sounds.” The nylon-string guitars Bob makes, favored for classical and flamenco use, emit a warm tone that is clear and pleasing, but without the sharper edge that steel-string guitars can produce.

As if that’s not enough, Bob and his friend Alain have built in Bob’s back yard a huge model railroad, on which robust toy cars as big as terriers glide along elevated tracks through miniature (but not too minuscule) towns and terrain. Many of the train cars are now stored in Bob’s home music studio, where he records whatever composition he might be working on.

A full life, to be sure — any one of the three activities would be enough. Bob takes them all in stride and realizes how fortunate he is. One more story behind one more door. What others might be out there?

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Ashes to Ashes, Mardi to Gras, Forever

By the time you read this, a great many happy Louisianans will be slumbering in their beds, wrapped in the warmth of a great party. Or — and this is more likely than not — they’ll be just wrapping up the party and moseying toward home. But not without stopping for a few beignets or a sausage roll or a full-out shrimp po’ boy, dressed, first. Some will go to church later to get Ash Wednesday ashes on their dry, headachy foreheads.

beads_mardigras_afterI have never attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans, except in spirit. I’m not sure I have the party cred. But I do love it so. Why? I have no connection with New Orleans, or even Louisiana, except through kind friends of my wife who come from Baton Rouge and include us in every possible activity that involves beer, a roux, and/or crawfish.

I know why, though. It’s because Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, is deep, deep, history-steeped, authentic South. So much happened here, continues to happen, good, bad, in between, always fascinating. No city anywhere is so perfectly cantilevered between good and evil. No mélange of aromas that you enjoy there can be duplicated anywhere else. No people smile like these people. The brand of inclusive abandon in the dance and music there is available anywhere else.

This is the city where, at 3 a.m., after a black-tie wedding, my wife blew a playful breath at me across a plate of powdered sugar at Café du Monde, giving me one of my favorite memories. This is where I drove a blimp — really — as part of my coverage of a PGA Tour event, high over the beautiful Crescent. (Same tournament, I rode out a rain delay with my cameraman, standing under the eaves of the media center, eating crawfish from a big plate.)

I was enraged when, after the hell of Katrina and Rita, some people seriously suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned. Sure, no one would build a city below sea level today. But would you tank Amsterdam? In the 17th century, back in the time of its roots, placed where it is on the river, New Orleans made sense. In the centuries since, it has cemented its singular place in our culture. It’s worth preserving. I’ve always thought that it’s astounding, a matter of great cultural pride, that we live in a nation that can hold everything from Boston to Seattle to San Antonio…

…to New Orleans. The one, the only, the magnificent, the smelly, the enchanting. Vive la ville, vive ses gens.

© 2014 Adam Barr, cher

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Lighthouses, Navigation, and Family Rituals

I grew up inland, but I have spent some time on the water, like many, in everything from canoes to cruise ships. If fear were a liquid in a spray bottle, the unexpected list of a boat would be like a quick shpritz. Most times I can talk myself intellectually out of what my soul fears spiritually. (Other times, such as when I am learning to row an unstable single scull, I just flop into the drink.)

When people who have been around boats all their lives have bad dreams, does the nightmare scenario involve choppy seas, night fog, and an invisible leeward shore? The rocks are there, and you can hear surf…but how far?

rowboatMy unsettled dreams can be like that, even in my thoroughly inland life. During the week, the nightmare metaphor can pop up, laden with symbolism about the uncertainty of what will be, where to go, what to do, when and whom to trust…and on and on.

Where are the lighthouses? One beacon would do the trick, orient us, keep us on course.

Families build lighthouses, day by day and year by year. Without even knowing they are doing it, families raise tall towers that look out over life’s waves and throw a powerful light, a confident Fresnel to whoever might need it.

One of ours: Saturdays, my son and I both have rowing activities. He has on-the-water practice; I have a land workout (weights, stretches, endurance, core work, all with my boat’s crew). After, we come home, where my wife delights in making the best scrambled egg burritos you will ever have. She has a technique, about which she is intentionally vague, that fluffs up the eggs remarkably. Their heat melts the shredded cheese inside the flour tortillas, and we slather on sour cream, medium salsa, and Cholula hot sauce. We top it all off with sliced oranges or fresh strawberries.

And for 20 minutes, we are together, laughing, going over what happened at practice, talking about the week or the weekend. No matter what else Saturday brings, we have that. And we look forward to it all week.

It’s a beacon. Fortunately, my shoreline is dotted with them.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Return of the Brain: Forward Nostalgia

brain[Readers: I know; I’ve been gone awhile. Except on Facebook. And I always said I would never apologize for big blog gaps. Only makes it worse, right? But I feel I owe you a brief explanation.

I enjoyed a five-day-a-week schedule for the eight months or so I was able to keep it up. And your response validated it. But as I often say, I’m not a 140-character writer. Rather, I’m 140 characters in one writer. Once I got going, it was hard to put on the brakes at 300 words. After awhile, burnout won.

But…time to get back. Less frequently, and shorter, as I figure out this faddish Internet thing. Please read, comment, chortle, cajole, and whatever other verbs you can think of. Meanwhile, like my friend above, I will continue to TRY TO WRITE OVER THE WORLD…. — AB]

For no particular reason, I don’t throw back on Thursday. Friday seems to be the nostalgia day around here. Perhaps it’s because no weekday carries more meaning than Friday (except maybe Monday, but that’s rarely positive). In school, at work, Friday was the final descent into a happy landing and the resort you were bound for: the weekend, with its relaxation and change.

No different now. The anticipation and finish-line exuberance with which we freight a Friday is just as potent. Often, music is the catalyst. Today’s example is from Roxy Music: the silken-voiced Bryan Ferry out front with “More Than This,” from the 1982 album Avalon.

Unlike some of the harder-edged stuff we were listening to about the time I wrapped up college, this song seemed to provide a dividing line between youth and adulthood. Time to jump off, time for a change, time to walk into a foggy unknown lit only by our hopes and promises. Exciting. Nervy. Natural.

The forward part of the nostalgia? That’s easy. Crane your neck to look backwards for too long, and it begins to get sore. I like what’s back there. But I also like the knowledge that even though not everything worked out according to that schedule of hopes and promises, and despite hard patches for everyone at one time or another — things worked out pretty well. Makes me excited about what’s ahead.

If there is more than this, it’s up to us to build it.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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