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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Keeping Busy with the Senators

I've been rather busy at the Westchester Medical Center these days, where I've been doing lots of pediatric chaplaincy, but that isn't why I haven't posted for so long.  My lack of blogging is because I've been chaperoning for Ian's marching band almost every weekend, tagging along to competitions, herding band members, handing out water bottles and "chickens."  (Normal people call them plumes.)

Ian's band, the Brien McMahon High School Marching Senators have been working hard on their show and, now, they're only two weeks away from the national championships.  Take a peek and see how they're doing.  They scored an 85.675 this week.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Adieu, Sweet Lovely Nancy

I've decided to make some videos of songs that I enjoy playing and singing.  Here's my first offering, an a capella version of Adieu, Sweet Lovely Nancy, which I often sing at chantey sings at the Rowayton Arts Center or at Boys in Hats concerts.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

July into August

Rumor has it that there's a whole month that falls between June and August.  Here's what happened in my life.

I worked at Norwalk Hospital for the Summer Intensive Unit (June 29-August 3) of Clinical Pastoral Education, finishing up my second unit.  This was an extremely intense program, which is probably why I didn't manage to get any blog posts done.  I covered inpatient psychiatry, telemetry and the ICU/CCU units, as well as leading a spirituality group for the outpatient psychiatry program.  One of the high points was spending a day riding with one of the ambulance crews that operate out of the hospital.


From July 6-8, I crewed on Amistad for OpSail 2012 in New London, CT, which was the first time that she has been under sail since her mishap on the way back from Cuba two years ago.  It was REALLY good to be able to do that!  We tied up at the same dock as the USCG Barque Eagle and the Brazilian Navy's full-rigged ship Cisne Branco (White Swan).  I spent much of the time speaking with the public dockside, as Amistad was still preparing to finish uprigging for her trip to Canada.

I preached three weeks (July 1, 15 & 22) at the Monroe Congregational Church, while the pastor, Rev. Jenn Gingras, was away. During this time, I put in one office day a week, making pastoral visits, putting together the bulletin, and doing other clergish sorts of things.  The July 22 service was held on the town green and was a joint endeavor between Monroe Congregational Church and St. Peter's Episcopal Church.  These sermons are on my YouTube channel.

Eric Anderson and I performed at the Marlborough Arts Center (Article here) for a second time on July 27.  Return engagements are always good and this one certainly was, with the crowd singing along and having a great time.  Of course, we sang the "old favorites," but we also included some new ones including the English folk song "Pleasant and Delightful" (with somewhat updated lyrics) and "General Taylor."  I played "John Hardy" on my gourd banjo.


Ian and I continued to sail on our friend Bob McGregor's boat, Scotch Flyer,on Wednesday nights and have continued to have a winning season in the Norwalk Yacht Club races.  We've managed to win the last several races, going undefeated in the second series of races, so there should be a nice trophy for Bob when the awards banquet rolls around.  Of course, we have our own awards banquet every Wednesday night when we go to Partners' Pizza.

Then, somehow, it became August and...

On August 5, I preached at St. James Missionary Baptist Church, a small African-American congregation that I've gotten to know over the past three years of being part of Norwalk's Interdenominational Ministers' Fellowship.  I was filling in for my friend, the Rev. Ken DuBose, who was celebrating his birthday, but who was also present because he was filling in for the church's organist and choir director who was on vacation.
Ian and I marched with the Nash Drum Corps in the South Salem NY Firefighters' Parade on August 8.  This was our second parade with the group, which has brought in a few more new members.  You can see Ian holding a rifle on the left (from your perspective) side of the flag and I'm two rows behind him with my trumpet.  We're both enjoying being able to march together.



On August 6, I interviewed for and, on August 9, was accepted into, a serial internship program at the Westchester Medical Center, which will allow me to complete all of the requirements to become a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and will allow me to pursue full-time employment in that field.  WMC is a Level 1 Trauma Center and also has a large burn unit, as well as an associated children's hospital, so I'll be able to have learning opportunities that were not available at Norwalk.

So, what did you do with your summer?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Carolina Chocolate Drops in New Haven

Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage at New Haven's
International Festival of Arts and Ideas
Photo by my old shipmate and friend, Wojtek Wacowski.
It is no secret that I'm a traditional music junkie.  Past posts about Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, and John McCutcheon testify to that.  I've been getting banjo notables to sign my banjo for a good while now and I've got a list of people that I'd like to track down and have them sign my banjo.  The members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been at the top of my list for some time, but their tour schedule rarely brings them to the northeast.

A few weeks ago, Kimberly the Ever Vigilant happened to see that the Drops were scheduled to appear at a free concert on the New Haven green as part of the
International Festival of Arts and Ideas so, this past Saturday, Kimberly, Ian and I packed our trusty orange picnic blanket and a variety of yummy munchies and made our way for an evening of musical bliss.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops had their beginnings at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC, and honed their traditional Afro-Appalachian string-band music playing with then-90-year-old African-American fiddler,
Joe Thompson (1918-2012).  Their set-list includes a lot more than string band music from the 1920s, though, incorporating disparate influences such as the music of minstrel shows, and Celtic "mouth music" as well as hip-hop and rhythm and blues, sometimes all at the same time.
Dom plays my banjo, with Hubby and Leyla.
Rhiannon is obscured by glare and my poorly placed body.
Last Saturday, the Drops put on a fine show, performing favorites like "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," and "Cornbread and Butterbeans," as well as a traditional Haitian song about a musician whose romantic prospects are limited because he has no friends and no family, and the title track to the band's latest album, "Leaving Eden," a song about the sorrows of leaving home in the hopes of finding work elsewhere.

After the concert, the members of the band were available for autographs and all seemed very happy to sign my banjo, looking at the other signatures.  "I'm going to sign next to Peggy!" said Rhiannon, excitedly.  Hubby signed/doodled his signature, with drawings standing in for letters.  Leyla, who isn't a regular performer with the Chocolate Drops, but who had played banjo beaufitully, asked, "Are you SURE you want ME to sign this?"  I did.  Dom's signature was small and careful and then he spent a minute or so playing my insturment, while the rest of the people in line watched in what I'd like to believe was pleasure.

My banjo head continues to fill up.
CCD signatures are transcribed for your reading pleasure.

Thanks to Charlie Barrett, for shooting video of Saturday's event and posting it to his YouTube channel!!



Monday, June 11, 2012

Getting My (Band) Geek (Back) On!

Me, at 15, in the Patrick Henry
High School Marching Band
uniform that my band wore for a
Valleydale Sausage commercial.
We used the proceeds from the
commercial to buy new uniforms.
When I was in high school, I was a band geek.  I played trumpet in the jazz band.  And the wind ensemble.  The marching band, too.  I was also in the regional band one year.  I loved it!

The Patrick Henry High School Marching Patriots were a competition band and attended (and won) numerous competitions.  Almost every year, we went on a major trip: Lakeland, FL; Gatlinburg, TN, and -- for my senior year -- Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the North American Music Festival, where my band won the grand champion trophy, despite the fact that we were competing against many larger bands.

Me, at 16, in my high school
marching band's new uniform,
complete with half cape and
1980s eyeglasses.
Years ago, when my then three-year-old son decided that he wanted to learn to play violin, I was happy, envisioning the day when Ian, Kimberly, and I would be able to make music together, on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar.  I was an "orchestra dad" when Ian was in the Fine Tuners in New Jersey, schlepping the official Boys in Hats sound system to Fine Tuners gigs and even providing narration for The Devil Went Down to Georgia in a series of concerts.

Ian in Norwalk's
Memorial Day Parade.
 When Ian started playing clarinet, I was happy about that, too.  In fact, I was band-geekily-giddy about it as I remembered my band experiences.  Kimberly (who used to play flute in the school band) and I suffered through those first years of school band, with squeaky clarinets and blatty trumpets.  It was, after all, karma; we were paying back all those band parents who "got to" listen to us play when we were beginning musicians.

When Ian made it to high school, I stepped up to the role of being a band dad, getting fingerprinted so I could chaperone the band on trips, attending all of the band parent association meetings, volunteering to be the announcer for the band's annual Celebration of Sound competition, and walking with the band during parades to help keep them hydrated and to help out if anything should go wrong.

My big problem with walking along with the band is that it tears up my head to be out of step with the marching cadence and it looks rather stupid if I march along with my water bottle.  For good or ill, once marching band gets in your blood, it is there to stay.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Ian's band, the Brien McMahon Marching Senators, had two parades: one on Sunday in Rowayton and one on Monday in Norwalk.  As the band was warming up on Sunday, I happened to notice some decidedly non-high-school-age people getting ready to march in another band.  One was a woman with a bit of gray in her hair.  Several of the guys sported facial hair that had more salt than pepper.  "Marching band for grown-ups!" I thought, "How can that be?" and I went over to ask some questions.

Ian and me after the Ketonah, NY,
Firefighters' Carnival Parade.  
It turned out that the group was the Nash Drum Corps.  Back in 1944, the Nash Engineering Company (headquartered in Norwalk) started an employees-only drum corps to march in local parades.  Though Nash Engineering is no longer in Norwalk, the drum corps continues with a variety of folks who have decided to keep the tradition alive.  I asked one of the trumpet players, Ron, what it took to join and he almost stuck me in a uniform then and there, but I had a commitment to Ian's band.  The next week, though, Ian and I went to Ron's house and got outfitted in uniforms so we could march in the Katonah, NY, Firefighters' Parade.  I spent the next week practicing the 2nd Trumpet part to several songs, and Ian brushed up on the Manual of Arms, since there's no place for a clarinet in the drum corps.

The parade on Wednesday was fantastic, with Ian anchoring the front line and me having a blast getting to play trumpet in a marching band for the first time in nearly a quarter century.  Really, it's just like riding a bike; you don't forget.  The marching was great, the music was under-rehearsed but good.  The best thing, though, was the fact that I was able to march with Ian.  That was cool beyond belief.  





Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bringing Amistad Back to Life

Amistad returning to the water on April 23, 2012
Common wisdom has it that ships and sailors rot in port.  For the last two years, Amistad has been tied to a dock in Mystic, Connecticut, with her black paint aging to a charcoal color and her brightwork peeling and chipping.  Her topmasts, yards and gaffs were removed after she limped home following a rig failure during her return from her trip to Cuba.  Time and inactivity have not been kind to her.  Over the last few weeks, though, things have begun to turn around for the old girl and she's being rerigged to sail this summer and, two weeks ago, I traveled up to Mystic to be part of the process.

On April 22, shortly after the last "Amen" was said at Calvin Reformed Church, where I've been the guest preacher for the last few weeks, I got on a train for Mystic.  I was intending to stay aboard the boat that night, but found that she was still out of the water at the Henry B. DuPont Shipyard at Mystic, so I ended up in a room at the Howard Johnson's in Mystic, until the next day, when the ship was returned to the water.  

That evening, I enjoyed dinner with Greg Belanger, Amistad America's CEO, and Hanifa Washington, Amistad's program coordinator, and heard about Amistad's partnership with Ocean Classroom and plans for the coming sailing season.  As things stand now, Amistad will be in home waters for the first part of the summer, then will travel up to Halifax in August.  Before hurricane season, she'll make her way to the island of Hispaniola, which holds the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and where Amistad will work with stateless children, caught between the governments of the two nations, building a school at an orphanage and doing advocacy work with the two governments and the United Nations to help correct the situation.

View of the shipyard from Amistad's deck.    Just beyond
the path are the ship's fore and main gaffs, as well as her
bowsprit.  The end of the brand new jibboom, wrapped in
plastic, is at the extreme left of the photo.
On the 23rd, the lift dock lowered Amistad into the water and we moved her to a slip just outside of the shipyard, which had only just been vacated by another Baltimore clipper, the privateer Lynx.  The crew (such as we were) were able to move aboard, clearing rigging out of the bunks so we would have a space to sleep.  There was lots to be done and Rebecca, the ship's rigger, was busy dealing with rust on various blocks and other fittings and then carrying them aloft in preparation for running lines.  I worked below for much of the 23rd, getting the galley back into working order and lamenting how much gunk can accumulate with two year's worth of neglect.

Over the next few days, we brought Amistad's gaffs and new jibboom from storage in the boatshed, then turned our attention to the storage container full of the ship's gear, which is located on the other side of Greenmanville Avenue, at the back edge of Mystic Seaport's parking lot.  Chris, the carpenter, let me borrow his pickup truck and Greg, Hanifa and I loaded up a couple truckfuls of standing and running rigging, which we brought back to the ship.

The first load of rigging from the
storage container.
Meanwhile, a couple guys from the shipyard used their forklift to lift our Zodiac from the roof of the container and drive it across so we could paint the bottom, inflate it, and get it ready to use as Amistad's tender.  While I worked on the Zodiac, a crew of guys were painting the ship black, working from floats alongside the vessel.  The plan was that, by the time that they were done painting the port side, we'd be able to have the small boat in the water to use as a mini-tug so we could turn the ship around and paint the starboard side.

I worked on developing a nice sunburn as we hoisted blocks aloft and carried rigging aboard, very roughly arranging it on deck to ease the process of getting everything into place when the time would come.  For me, though, my time was over and I had to leave the vessel and my crewmates so I could return to my CPE program at Norwalk Hospital, at least until I can scrape together a few more days to come back and help some more.

You can follow Amistad's progress at:
and on facebook at

Gear ranged around Amistad's deck and cabin tops.  There's much more gear alongside in the shipyard
and still in the storage container.

Monday, April 2, 2012

An Afternoon (and Evening) with Peggy Seeger

Mike, Peggy & Pete Seeger, 2007
A week or so, at the monthly sea chantey gathering at the Rowayton Arts Center, one of the folks there noticed the signatures on my banjo head.  I've got several:  John McCutcheon, Tony Trishka, Tom Chapin, Bob Webb, Mike Seeger and Pete Seeger.  

"You know, Peggy Seeger is going to be in Saratoga Springs next Thursday," the person looking at my banjo volunteered.

I was glad for the news, as I've been a fan of Peggy's for years but I was also somewhat troubled, as Thursdays are the one day of the week where my schedule is completely carved in stone because of the CPE program at the hospital.  Upon arriving home, I checked out Peggy Seeger's website to see if she had any other concerts in the general area and found that she had one coming up at Rider University on March 30, coupled with a lecture, A Feminist View of Anglo-American Traditional Songs.  I also saw that this would likely be the last ever concert anywhere near where I lived, since she was planning on only touring in Europe after returning to her home in England after this tour.  I made up my mind that I WOULD go to the concert.

Checking in with my wife and son to get their approval for my taking a road trip to New Jersey, I called my mother, telling her that I had found something that "I was sure she'd really want to do when she came up to visit," holding my breath and hoping that she'd decide that she wanted to take a two and a half hour drive to New Jersey the day after taking a train up from Virginia.  Fortunately, she agreed and I packed up my banjo and some Sharpie markers for the trip.

On Thursday evening, I picked my mom up from the train station.  On Friday morning, we left for Rider, stopping for some shopping and lunch along the way.  We were doing fine until we hit traffic on Rt. 1 on the way into Lawrenceville, causing us to arrive half-way through Peggy's lecture, but she welcomed us into the small theater where she was holding forth on the role of women in Anglo-American folk music, which she punctuated with a variety of songs, accompanying herself on guitar or keyboard, as appropriate.  (If you didn't click on the link earlier, here's another chance to see a summary of her lecture.)  

After the lecture, I asked Peggy if she would sign my banjo, which she happily did, including her unique "female music note" symbol with her signature. (See pictures below.)  After signing the banjo, she played it for a while, then surprised me by inviting me to stick around after the evening concert so I could play her banjo.

That evening, my mother and I had front-row seats in the Gill Chapel, where the concert was taking place and we sang along on many of the songs, laughed at her stories, and were generally impressed with this amazing woman who, in her late seventies, has more energy in her than most people half her age.  After the concert, I had the chance to play her pre-1900 A.C. Fairbanks banjo, with an 11" pot.  Suffice it to say that if any of my blog readers should wish to present me with a similar A.C. Fairbanks banjo, I wouldn't turn it down.

So that was my day spent with Peggy Seeger.  She's a phenomenal musician, with a deep knowledge of her craft and a love for her audience.  I enjoyed her keen sense of humor and her generosity of spirit.  I wish her well as she concludes her U.S. tour and returns to Britain.  And I hope that she'll decide to come back to this side of the pond someday.

Peggy Seeger Playing My Banjo
Me Playing Peggy Seeger's Banjo
with Peggy's 1929 Martin Guitar in Foreground

Peggy, Mike & Pete Seeger's Signatures on My Banjo

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs (1924-2012). Requiescat in Pace.

Even though I grew up in Virginia, I didn't grow up with bluegrass music.  My mother favored contemporary Christian music and my father would usually tune to the "easy listening" music on WRVA.  My parents' record collection, which was rather small, consisted of a box of 45s with songs like Ricky Nelson's Stood Up, Broken Hearted Again, Gene Pitney's If I Didn't Have a Dime (To Play the Jukebox), and Percy Faith's Theme from A Summer Place.  The 33s featured artists like Don Ho, and Don MacLean   Inexplicably, there was a copy of 101 Strings Play the Beatles, even though the actual Beatles made no appearance in my parents' record collection.  The only banjos in the record cabinet were buried in 1960s folk scare groups like The Brothers Four and the Serendipity Singers. [REVISION 3/30/12:  My mother, who just read this posting wants me to point out that she and my father didn't actually buy most of their records, but that they were given to my father by a friend of his who worked at a radio station and would pass along things that weren't being played.  Perhaps this explains a lot... ]

On weekday afternoons, though, the sound of the banjo came blazing into the house, with the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies.  "That's Flatt and Scruggs," my father told me, but there was no further information forthcoming.

Later, I would fall in love with the iconic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," not knowing that the man who played the banjo on the recording was the man who, along with his Foggy Mountain Boys, pretty much invented bluegrass music.  Only later would I learn that FMB had become the bane of banjo pickers everywhere, since it is the one tune, aside from Dueling Banjos, that absolutely everyone knows to ask for.  Still, I love it.

That happy, rollicking banjo that Earl played made me want to play banjo, too, though my taste in music led toward the mellower tone of open-back banjos and the old-time style of clawhammer, instead of the three-finger picking style that Earl Scruggs invented.  Even so, I've always loved to listen to Earl and to those who play "Scruggs style," and have dreamed of getting yet another banjo, a resonator banjo like Earl's, and learning how to play at least a bit of that three-fingered magic.

Last night, I was at the extremely cool Jalopy Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn (NY Times article about the place here), playing banjo with friends.  This morning, I woke up to the news that Earl Scruggs had passed away and I've been thinking that last night's musical adventure was a fitting tribute to a man whose genius so completely transformed American music.

Farewell, Earl.  You will will be missed.

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
Farewell Blues



Friday, March 2, 2012

In Which Our Hero Has His iPhone Stolen and Responds by Using Ingenuity and Space-Age Technology

Let me start by saying that it was all my own darn fault.  Really.  I'm a big boy and I can take responsibility for my own actions, at least mostly.  Like now.  Sort of.

You see, here's what happened.  I was at Norwalk Hospital on Monday morning, working my shift as a Chaplain Intern in the Clinical Pastoral Education program.  I set my iPhone down in the bathroom, rather than clipping it onto my belt. Dumb.  I know.  Then I walked away.  Double dumb.

I hadn't been gone for even a minute, though, when I realized that I had left my phone in the bathroom and I sprinted back down the hall from the chaplains' office (Yes, Grammar Nazis, I do, in fact, mean the office that belongs to multiple chaplains.), and up the stairs to the bathroom on the third floor just outside of the inpatient psychiatric unit where I'm working.  It is a small bathroom, a "one-holer," and is in a relatively quiet part of the building, so I was hopeful, but, alas, no phone.  Snarf!!!

Ever the optimist, I sprinted down to the security office to see if anybody had turned my phone in.  Nobody had. Snarflety poop! 

Next, I ran back to the chaplains' office to see if I could use the Find My iPhone app on the office computer.  Unfortunately, the computers at Norwalk Hospital are all running an old browser that isn't compatible with the Find My iPhone app.  Dangitty poople snarf!

I believe that I may have broken the overland speed record as I zipped up five flights of steps and raced down the hall to the IT department, hoping to find a computer that could work for me.  Oddly, none of the computers there could, either, but one of the IT gurus handed me his iPhone so I could use the app and locate my phone.  The only problem was that my phone, when it popped up on the map, was three blocks away, on West Avenue.  I remotely locked the phone so nobody could use it and used the app to make the screen display "STOLEN IPHONE!!  PLEASE CALL 203-505-XXXX."  (I entered my actual home phone number, but you, Gentle Reader, understand why I'd rather not post my home phone in this public document.)

A moment later, I refreshed the data and found that my phone had not moved, so I slowed down just enough to grab my jacket and hoofed it down to where the phone had been pinged on the GPS, hoping that the reason it was holding still was because it had been ditched after my locking it and identifying it as stolen.  When I got there, though, there was no sign of the phone.  Dadblame dangitty poopledy snarf!

Giving up on finding the phone using only my five senses, I employed Sense Number Six: Kimberly on the computer at home, who told me that the phone was now showing up at the Norwalk Community Health Center.  "Clearly, my iPhone thief likes healthcare," I thought.  "Maybe it is a doctor or a nurse who picked up my phone with the intention of returning it, but who was called away to a medical emergency."

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a positive thinker.

Kimberly raced over in the Subaru and drove us to the Community Health Center, where a Kind Administrative Sort (KAS) allowed me to borrow his iPhone to run the app to find my phone.  The satellite imagery showed that the phone was in the parking lot, so Kimberly and I walked through the parking lot, peering into each car, looking for my iPhone on seats, dashboards and floorboards, but to no avail.  

I thought I'd press my luck and ask KAS if he'd let me actually borrow his iPhone so I could take it into the parking lot and use it to make my iPhone beep loudly so I could find out which car had my iPhone in it.  I had a further plan of sitting on the car's hood until Kimberly could get one of the cops from the roadwork out front to come and have a chat with the car's owner when they came out of the building.  I must have looked very trustworthy in my clerical collar because KAS handed me his phone and wished me luck.  Luck, however, was not with me and, after several minutes of trying to find a car that emitted the telltale iPhone locator tone, the GPS showed that the phone was no longer at the health center, even though no vehicles had left the parking lot.

Using my powers of deduction, I concluded that there must be a lag between the phone moving and the app reporting the phone's new location.  Clearly, I wasn't going to get anywhere by chasing after the signal and hoping to borrow some random person's iPhone so I could locate my phone.  Instead, I was going to have to wait for night, when the phone would likely stop moving, and track it using an iPhone that I could borrow for the evening from someone who actually knew me.  Armed with this plan, I went back to the hospital to finish my shift.

When Kimberly picked me up at 5:00, she told me that she had checked the phone's location several times over the previous hours and that the phone hadn't moved.  Additionally, she had driven by the area to scope it out.  The phone was in some woods at the intersection West Avenue and Reed Street and, as it hadn't moved, I surmised that the perp had stashed it until the battery could run down, so that I wouldn't be able to track it to his house.  "Very clever," I thought, "but I've got you now!"  

Screenshot from Where's My iPhone, showing my phone in a
wooded area just north of Reed Street in Norwalk.
Kimberly drove us to the location and parked in the Walgreen's parking lot, then we crossed Reed Street into the parking lot behind Durango Insurance.  I looked up the hill (really more of a cliff when viewed from where we were standing) and decided that the best way to get started was simply to get started, so I charged ahead, expecting to reach the top and find a garbage bag or a duffle bag that would contain my phone.  I further imagined taking my phone from the bag and replacing it with a note that said something like, "Jesus forgives you for stealing my iPhone and so do I."  Ok, that's not actually what I imagined writing, but you get the idea.

Actual location of phone as shown above.
The Cliff.
There was no duffle bag, though.  Instead, a short way along the ridge, there was a clearing with a camouflage tent, surrounded by tarp-covered piles of God knows what.  Despite my leather-jacket-clad, testosterone-fueled desire to walk into a homeless person's camp and demand my phone back from the miscreant who had taken it, I decided to take a kinder and gentler approach, or at least one that was less likely to get me killed.  I slinked back down the hill and borrowed Kimberly's cell phone and called the police.

The sun was nearly setting when one of Norwalk's Finest arrived.  As the officer stepped from his police car, I knew that I was in good hands as, instead of a fifty-year veteran of the force who had spent the last thrity of them staking out Dunkin' Donuts, the dispatcher had sent a cop who was in good physical shape and looked ready for climbing a cliff, even if he did look like he was about sixteen years old.

Together, Officer Timmy and I climbed back up the cliff and he, shining his flashlight on the tent and using a rather impressive command voice, ordered the occupant to come out and to keep his hands in sight.  Then, in a tone that was almost gentle, he asked "Do you have an iPhone that doesn't belong to you?"  The man from the tent denied having it, but I had anticipated such a turn of events and took out Kimberly's cell phone and called my iPhone.  "Gotcha!" I thought as I pressed the send key.  But nothing happened.  Pooplety, dangitty, muppeling snarf!  

So that's where the story ends, really.  A homeless person's tent is as much his home as if it were a mansion with a security fence and, apparently, my use of technology to track the phone to a homeless guy's camp in the woods on a cliff where nobody else ever goes doesn't actually constitute probable cause for a search.  The officer couldn't go through the homeless guy's stuff and I had no other options left, so we climbed back down the cliff.

Now, I'm using a borrowed cell phone and waiting for April when AT&T gives me a contract renewal and I can get some credit toward my next iPhone.  In the meantime, I commend the following video to you:


***
DISCLAIMER:
I have the utmost respect for young Officer Timmy, whose real name I will not divulge.  He did his job very well and was only hamstrung in his efforts to recover my iPhone by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  I am still amused by his apparent youth, though I suspect that reflects more on my advancing years than on any other factor.
***

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Restaurant Review: Goulash Place, Danbury, CT


This past week, my son, Ian, my "meta-daughter", Devin, and I went out to Goulash Place, at 42 Highland Avenue in Danbury, for lunch after church.  This restaurant, opened in1977 by John Aczel and his late wife Magda, is perhaps the only Hungarian restaurant in Connecticut and has some very good (though not universally so) reviews online.  We arrived promptly at noon, parking in the small lot behind the restaurant, and were greeted by the restaurant's owner, John Aczel, coming out of his back door and informing us that the restaurant wouldn't be open until 1:00, so the three of us piled back in the car and went off to kill some time.

Upon our return, we parked and walked around to the front of the building, where we entered from the left-side door, set back from the street.  I was surprised by how small the dining room is, with only room for a bar in one corner, a small salad bar, and a half dozen or so tables.  Hungarian tchotchkes covered the walls.  John invited us to sit wherever we liked and gave us a couple minutes to look over the menu.

Having read several reviews of the restaurant, I already knew that I wanted to try the Transylvanian goulash but, as Ian ordered that, I selected the combination plate, featuring beef, pork, and veal.  Devin, since she's a vegetarian, had fewer options and ordered pea soup and palascinta (Hungarian crepe) with mushrooms.  I also ordered stuffed cabbage as an appetizer.  The youthful members of the party got rootbeer and I ordered a dark Czech beer, then John directed us toward the very small salad bar, featuring iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, pickled beets, and just a few other items.

Stuffed Cabbage
When the drinks and the stuffed cabbage arrived, I poured the .5 liter beer, pausing to photograph it, as I knew that I'd never remember the name of the beer, which featured all sorts of accents, tildes, umlauts, and other diacritical marks that I didn't even recognize.  (Unfortunately, my cell phone was stolen the next day, before I could download the pictures from it, which also serves as explanation for why all of the photographs in this blog post are ripped off from other locations on the internet.)  The beer was quite good, dark brown like a stout, but with a lighter body and a bit more nuttiness.  The cabbage was astonishingly good, made with ground pork on the inside, but with bits of briskety beef in the sauce that covered it, and a nice dollop of sour cream to give it some tartness.

The Sampler Plate
When the entrees arrived, Devin asked me to taste test her mushroom palascinta to make sure there was no meat in it.  There wasn't, and the mushrooms were fantastic, particularly with a bit of cheese melted over the top of the crepe, and her soup was quite nice.  Ian and I traded bites of food, with him falling in love with with the wiener schnitzel (Hungarian: Bécsi szelet) and me deciding that he had gotten the better deal with his plate full of pork goulash and dumplings (essentially spaetzle).  My roast pork and beef were good enough, but were a bit overdone and, rather than being just "tender" had moved on towards "soggy.".  The dumplings were very good, especially with the meat juices.  The red cabbage added a lot to the flavor palette, but the green beans were canned and soggy and the carrots were indifferent.

John Aczel with his kolbasz.
I had noticed a sign over the bar advertising homemade sausages for $7.99/lb and, before leaving, I asked John for one.  Later in the evening, when I sampled some, I found that the smoked sausage was semi-dry, garlicky with just a bit of sweetness.  While I don't know anything about Hungarian sausage styles, I do know that I like what John made.

As Ian, Devin and I drove back to church after lunch, we discussed the restaurant and how we might review it.  Ian and Devin were both very happy with their food, but I was less so.  The salad bar was minimal, feeling like a throwback to the 1970s, back when "lettuce" meant "iceberg" and the beans and carrots were better forgotten.  We all agreed that the service was a bit on the slow side, but that it was very friendly.  The small dining room meant that the smoky-smelling drinkers at the bar were a pungent presence as we ate.  Would we go back?  Probably, but I'd definitely stick with the goulash rather than the sampler plate.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Restaurant Review: Royal Guard Fish N' Chips, Danbury, CT


As part of our mission of eating at a different restaurant each week that I'm preaching in Bethel, my son and I decided to try Royal Guard Fish N' Chips/Royal Curry Corner this past Sunday.  Ian had noticed a listing for the restaurant on Yelp! and we decided to give it a try, knowing as we drove there that we'd both be eating from the Pakistani lunch buffet, yet also wanting to try their fish and chips, which gets good reviews across the interwebs.

The restaurant, at 389 Main Street in Danbury, is directly across the street from the Danbury Masjid and has a neon sign in the front window announcing "Halal Food."  When Ian and I walked in, we noticed that the restaurant was rather spartan, with a counter for placing orders in one corner and a buffet along the back wall.  The tables were bare, with yellowed newspaper designs on them, befitting a chips shop.  The other customers were largely Pakistani and wearing traditional clothing, which I took as a positive sign for the quality of the buffet.

Ian and I made our way to the buffet, lifting the lids off of the steam trays and helping ourselves to the wide variety of food.  The chicken biryani was very flavorful,.  I was reminded that this was Pakistani (Muslim) and not Indian (Hindu) as I helped myself to some well-seasoned beef curry.  Ian really enjoyed the pakoras, though I didn't sample any.  Tandoori chicken always makes me happy and Royal's tandoori chicken was better than most, moist and flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender.  The palak paneer (spinach with fresh cheese) was quite good, as was the chana masala (curried chickpeas).

Poori, as God intended them to be but not, unfortunately,
as they appear on the buffet at Royal Fish N' Chips.
The only real disappointment of the meal was the poori (deep fried whole-wheat flatbread), which is usually a real treat.  Poori, however, doesn't belong on a buffet.  It needs to be served hot and fresh.  Unfortunately, on the steam table, the poori, which was puffed up when it comes out of the oil, collapsed into depressing soggy flatness and lost all of its light and airy goodness.   The naan (tandoori bread) was delicious, though, with a nice, nutty flavor from the sesame seeds that covered the top of the bread.

Despite the tragic poori, the meal was quite good and was also quite affordable.  Next time I go back, I'll have to make the difficult decision about whether to get more of the Pakistani fare or to get the fish and chips for which the restaurant is named.  It'll be a tough call.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Restaurant Review: Sycamore Drive-In, Bethel, CT


Since Ian and I have been going to Bethel every Sunday while I'm the supply preacher at the First Congregational Church there, we've taken the opportunity to eat at a different restaurant for lunch each week.  Our fist week, we revisited an old favorite, Pho Vietnam, but each week since, we've ventured to new and different restaurants.  On February 12, we visited the Sycamore Drive-In at 282 Greenwood Ave. in Bethel CT, which Kimberly had recommended to us, as she had once eaten there after a Master Gardener event.

A view of the interior of the Sycamore, along with my
most excellent church videographer and dining companion.
The Sycamore has been around since 1948 and has the vintage feeling of Arnold's Drive-In from Happy Days, with a black and white checkerboard floor, chrome and vinyl stools at a long counter, formica tables, and plenty of mid-20th-Century memorabilia.  Beyond the nostalgia factor, the Sycamore offers two unique features: fresh ground top-round hamburgers and homemade rootbeer, both of which are made from recipes that have been in use at the restaurant for decades.

When Ian and I arrived, we both already knew that we wanted the rootbeer and one of the members of the Bethel church had recommended that we order the fries "well done."  Kimberly had mentioned that the burgers were rather small and that we'd do well to order double burgers, so Ian and I both decided on the "Dagwood Burger," consisting of two patties, along with american cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, ketchup, and mayo.

Dagwood Burgers, large fries and homemade rootbeer!
Our meals arrived quickly, with the rich, vanilla-heavy rootbeer in frosted mugs.  Large orders of fries, it turns out, are really too large for one person, but "well done" is definitely the way to go for these fries, which are crispy on the outside and pleasantly mealy on the inside.  I don't usually like ketchup on my fries, but these ones cried out for it, taking me back to childhood.  The burgers were served wrapped in paper, which Ian made a tactical error in removing, as his condiment laden burgers leaked and had the pieces slide apart.  They definitely wrap them for a reason and my burger held together just fine and remained mess-free in its wrapper.

Whether neatly contained or not, the burgers were quite good, though the patties, at just 2.5oz each, were surprisingly thin.  They had a good, honest, cooked-on-a-griddle umami flavor.  If I had ordered the burgers elsewhere, I might have been disappointed with the iceberg lettuce, but the crispy flavorlessness of iceberg definitely fit with the overall 1950s theme of the restaurant and was good in its own way.

With the burgers finished, Ian and I turned our attention to the second plate of fries and our waiter brought us a second round of rootbeers, on the house.  I'm not sure whether this was because I was wearing clergy blacks or because I had been photographing my food, but I wasn't about to overanalyze things.  Perhaps, if you go to the Sycamore Drive-In, you might even find out that everyone gets free refills on their rootbeer.  Just be sure to take cash, because the good folks at Sycamore don't take plastic or checks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Preaching at FCC, Bethel

First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Bethel, Connecticut
For the last few weeks, I've been preaching at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Bethel, CT.  Their pastor of thirteen years, Dr. Sheldon Smith recently retired and their interim minister, Rev. Laura Westby, won't start until March 5, so I've been filling the pulpit as something of an "interim interim minister."  I've been sharing the pulpit with the congregation's Licensed Parish Associate, Jane Ellingwood, and have been enjoying myself immensely as I lead both the 10:00am and 6:00pm worship services, which are distinctly different in style.  The 10:00am service is a "traditional" service, with three hymns, choir, organ, and full liturgy.  At 6:00, the service is more intimate and relaxed, with a guitarist playing for the songs, only one scripture reading, and is concluded with a potluck supper in the church hall.

I've been impressed by this friendly congregation.  They've welcomed me into their family and have been receptive to the small changes that I've suggested.  Most notably, they've been enthusiastic about the modification that I've made to the traditional "Please turn off your cell phones" announcement at the beginning of the service.  Now, the announcement goes something like, "Please take out your phones and check in on Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media.  Silence your devices, but please use them to let your friends who are not here know what they're missing."  There's also been a lot of interest in the way that I have Ian videorecord all of my sermon and then post them to youtube (www.youtube.com/revpaulucc) so that those who miss the service can still be able to experience worship.

Just this morning, I received a call from one of FCC Bethel's deacon co-chairs, asking if I would be willing to add an extra Sunday to my time with them, so I've agreed to preach there on March 4, which will have me celebrating communion with them on my last Sunday there.  Already, though, I'm looking forward to the possibility of returning as a guest preacher when Laura takes her vacation or for a special program on the story of the Amistad.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Restaurant Review: Pontos Taverna, Norwalk CT

Valentine's Day was a bust, what with my working at the hospital all day and then having (cough) getting to go to the Winter Concert at Brien McMahon High School, where Ian performed in both the Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble.  Actually, the concert was really quite good, even if I am left wondering what kind of person schedules a school concert for Valentine's Night.

Sweethearts out for a romantic
post-Valentine's Day lunch.
Wednesday, though, was a Different Story.  Kimberly declared that, in celebration of Valentine's Week, we would go and have lunch at Pontos Taverna, the relatively new Greek restaurant that had caught her attention a while back.  She had made a reconnaissance of the place a couple weeks prior and came away with the notion that it would be well worth a repeat visit, with me in tow.  Since the car was in the shop, we walked down to 7 Isaac Street for lunch, arriving just a smidge after the lunch rush was past.

Dolmades!
After being seated and given menus, it quickly became obvious that Kimberly knew just what she was going to order: a pork souvlaki sandwich.  For the sake of having different things to taste, I settled on the gyro (please pronounce that "gyeer-oh", with a very soft G, not "jie-roe") sandwich, which I ordered with french fries and xtipiti, a spicy feta cheese spread for a dollar extra.  Our server went out of her way to be informative and helpful, explaining that the french fries were served inside the sandwich and recommended that Kimberly and I also get a separate order of fries to share. Of course, we also had to get an order of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves).

Kimberly's souvlaki sandwich.
My gyro sandwich.
French fries to share.
The dolmades, made with meat and rice and served cold, were a great beginning to the meal.  Kimberly was very pleased with her souvlaki sandwich and she allowed me a bite of it, it being Valentine's Week.  As good as it was, I was much more impressed with the gyro.  While I generally like gyros (or doner, if eating Turkish instead of Greek), this one was particularly good.  Instead of the usual ground-meat version, this  gyro was made of sliced meat, stacked on a vertical, rotating spit, with the resulting product being a bits of lovely, browned meat, rather than strips of homogenized beef and lamb.  The xtipiti, which was new to me, was wonderful, adding nice bite to the sandwich, instead of the typical tzatziki sauce, with its yogurt and cucumber flavor.  As to the french fries in the sandwich, they lost their structural integrity and mostly just gave a carbohydrate boost, which definitely wasn't necessary.  The fries that were served on the side were fabulous, though, fresh-cut and served nice and hot with salt and oregano.  The only thing that would have made them better would be a squeeze of lemon juice.

Since it was our Valentine's Day-ish date, Kimberly and I decided to get coffee and dessert.  She got an order of baklava, which looked to be enough to feed a small army, and an American coffee.  I had the tiramisu, similarly large, and a Greek coffee, which was served in a cute, but decidedly right-handed demitasse set.  Somehow, I didn't manage to take any dessert photos; I'll let you guess why.

Other than the strangeness of the right-hand-only coffee, Pontos was fantastic and I expect that Kimberly and I may well make this one of our regular stops when we're looking for somewhere tasty and close to home.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Waffles & Maple Syrup

When I was in the pulpit every Sunday, people would regularly tell me that they wouldn't be in church the following week.  I always appreciated the information, since it kept me from wondering if they were sick or if they had wandered away, disgruntled, because I had said something they didn't like in a sermon.  The point, though, is that most people -- even faithful, church-going people -- play hookey from church from time to time.

I did it this morning.

I didn't have a preaching gig anywhere and I figured that, after twenty years of church work, I had earned the right to blow off church, make some waffles and read the New York Times.  At least once.  Next week, I'll be back preaching at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of Bethel, CT, where I'm filling in between the settled pastor who retired and the interim, who doesn't arrive until March.

So, about the waffles:  Ten years ago, I bought Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which is probably my single favorite cookbook and is now out in a revised tenth anniversary edition.  Bittman's "Overnight Waffles" (recipe at bottom of this post) are yeasty and delicious and are my favorite waffle recipe, though I haven't made sourdough waffles, yet.  This morning, I pulled out all the stops and made the waffles, along with cinnamon bananas (Recipe: slice bananas, add cinnamon, serve on top of waffles.), sausage links and bacon (I had a half package left over from making Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon, so why not?).  I brewed up a pot of coffee, poured some OJ, cursed the fact that our waffle iron only makes two waffles at a time, and ladled in the first batch of batter.

As the waffles cooked, I pulled our quart bottle of maple syrup from the refrigerator and prepared to heat up the syrup.  (Real maple syrup, of course -- not that artificially flavored corn syrup crap marketed as "pancake syrup.") To my chagrin, I found that the bottle had only a dribble left in it.  I looked in the pantry to see if we had a bottle in reserve, but didn't see any.  I was approaching a psychological meltdown when Kimberly, using her super X-ray vision, peered w---a---y into the back of the cabinet and found a bottle that I had missed.

As the Queen of the Universe produced the miraculous bottle of life-giving syrup from the recesses of the cabinet, I thought back to when we had bought it, straight from the woman who had tapped the trees, at a farmers' market in Vermont when we had gone there on vacation a year and half ago .  It was "Grade B" rather than "Grade A" like most grocery stores carry, and I was excited to find it.  Contrary to what most folks would expect, the USDA grading system for maple syrup assigns the highest rating for the syrup that has the least maple flavor and color, a system that dates back to when maple syrup was used as a general purpose sweetener and people didn't want everything they used it in to taste like maple.

"Grade A Light Amber" is at the top of the list, followed by "Grade A Medium Amber" and "Grade A Dark Amber."  It isn't until position number four that "Grade B" designates the darkest and most maple-flavored syrup that is available to consumers.  "Grade C" is substandard for normal use and is only available to industrial producers of maple flavored products like bacon and flavored oatmeal.

This morning, as I bit into my "Grade B" maple syrup covered waffles, I was blown away by the flavor, which was much richer and much more intense than the dribble in the first bottle.  Now, I'm going to have to make sure that I always buy "Grade B" syrup, as I have come to the well-considered conclusion that Grade A is for sissies.

Maple Syrup from the pantry today.
  Grade A Dark Amber on left.  Grade B on right.
The darker color is matched by a much more intense taste.


Overnight Waffles
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (I use 1.5c all-purpose flour and .5c whole wheat flour.)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups milk
  • 8 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (My mother's rule is "always double the vanilla."  Just sayin'.)
  • 2 eggs

Directions:
1. Before going to bed, combined the dry ingredients, then stir in the milk, butter and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid and let stand overnight at room temperature.
2. Grease and preheat your waffle iron. Separate the eggs and stir the yolks into the batter. Beat the whites until they hold soft peaks. Fold them into the batter.
3. Ladle the batter into the waffle and waffle until light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes depending on your waffle iron.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Restaurant Review: El Tapatio Mexican Cuisine, Middletown, NY

On our way back from Ithaca on Saturday, my family was getting hungry.  We stopped in Middletown, NY, for gas and I whipped out my iPhone and checked Yelp! to see what was nearby.  Less than a mile away, we found El Tapatio Mexican Cuisine, so I turned the car around and drove to 252 Rt. 211 East, where we parked beside the micro-strip-mall that houses El Tapatio, along with a Chinese restaurant and a liquor store.  In my experience, crummy locations are always a sign of good food, so my hopes were high.

Perhaps you remember this Puerto Rican boy band
from the '70s and '80s.  Hopefully, you don't.
If you need a reminder click here.
As we entered the vestibule, there was a specials board, with several items on it, but the menudo caught my eye.  The owner's daughter, a cute little girl of about five, brought us our menus a few moments later and, as we nibbled on chips and salsa, Kimberly and Ian quickly decided on steak tacos, but my attention was caught by the non-gringo items on the menu.  Lengua (beef tongue), nopales (prickly-pear cactus), cueritas (pork skin), and cecina (dried beef) all made appearances as ingredients in burritos and tacos and I was tempted, but my mind kept going back to the menudo on the specials board and that's what I ended up ordering.

"Now, just what is menudo?" you may be asking yourself just about now.  Perhaps you remember Menudo, the Puerto Rican boy band that was (in)famous in the 1970s and 1980s and that helped launch the careers of luminaries such as Ricky Martin of Livin' La Vida Loca fame, and a whole bunch of other people I've never heard of.  That's not the menudo we're discussing here.  We're talking about the traditional soup made of beef tripe and intestines, pig's trotters, and hominy.  How can you say "no" to cow's guts, stewed ever so gently in a spicy broth with pig's feet and corn that has been soaked in lye, and served with lime, onions and cilantro?  I mean, really???

While we waited for the meal to arrive, Ian commented that he wished that he weren't so squeamish about food, that he wished that he enjoyed the adventure of trying things like fish heads and tacos de ojo, but that he just didn't feel up to the challenge.  Still, when the food arrived, he took great pleasure in watching as I spooned up bits of intestine resembling calamari rings and scraped meat off of the hunks of bone that filled the bowl.  The broth was pleasantly spicy, much like a good pozole rojo and the trotters gave the broth a richness much like vietnamese pho.  It was great stuff and I was extremely happy with my menudo and warm corn tortillas.

Though he couldn't bring himself to taste any of the solid parts of the menudo, Ian tried the broth and liked it, so that's at least a step in the right direction for him.  Now, he just needs to step it up before he travels to China in April and gets to sample real Chinese food.  Kimberly, conversely, opted against sampling the menudo and, as I am a man who wishes to remain happily married, I didn't press the issue with her.  She and Ian enjoyed their tacos immensely.  My only regret for the evening is that we were in a bit of a hurry to get home, so we didn't stay to sample any of the desserts at El Tapatio.  Something tells me that we'll have another chance to do that when we travel through Middletown next time.

Menudo!  A steaming hot bowl of guts and bones!
What's not to love?!?!?
Ian's steak tacos.
How can you go wrong with steak tacos?