Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Three): Rains, Trains and Snowmobiles

I managed to swing a couple of trips into the woods on the bike this weekend, after my first accident-infested foray last week, though monsoon season has left many of my normal haunts squishy and stinky messes at this point. Still, I slogged through the mire to visit one of the cooler spots within the two-and-a-half mile radius surrounding my house: the place where trains go to die in the woods. I also sought out, and found, an old friend (well, if you can consider the carcass of a snowmobile to be a friend, anyway), and I checked up on Indie Albany headquarters to see if it’s still sinking into the flotsam that washes up around it. (Answer: yes, it is). Finally, I went to get an updated photo of Miss Indie Albany (our mascot, at right), and received quite a surprise when I returned to her road-side home. Oh, the drama!

Click here for the photos. Trains in the Woods kick ass, just for the record.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Two): Creeks, Gorges, Towers

When I was a little kid, in the days before GPS and Google Earth and Mapquest and the like, if I found a creek in the woods, and I wanted to know where it came from, or where it went, I had no choice but to follow its course as far as I could, upstream and down, to see what I might find. No matter where the creek led, or what I found when I got there, the trek itself was reward enough, and I have always regarded Creek Walking as one of my favorite summer pastimes. (Marcia will attest to the fact that it’s dangerous to take an unplanned hike with me, since I’m more apt to lead us on a muddy off-trail “adventure” than I am to enjoy a pleasant stroll down a well-manicured trail).

I can remember Creek Walking from my earliest years with my father, racing sticks down Rock Creek in Albemarle, North Carolina or the streams that cut through Naval Ammunition Depot Earle, New Jersey, winding between that military base’s seemingly endless lines of explosive-packed bunkers. When we moved to Dale City and then Lake Ridge, Virginia, I was of an age where I could organize expeditions on my own, and I remember many great days spent carrying canteens and rations into the woods to follow creeks as far as we could get, while still making it home for dinner on time.

When I moved to Latham in the early ’90s, one of the first things that drew me into the woods here was the profusion of visible creeks within a couple of miles of my house. I suspect that most folks never notice these creeks, but I’m highly attuned to culverts under roadways, and marshy roadside basins that must drain somewhere, and I saw plenty of things that intrigued me as I drove or walked or biked the highways and byways around my neighborhood.

Once I actually started following the creeks, I found things that exceeded my wildest woodland expectations, as there’s a stunning series of beautiful, deep, winding gorges between Latham and Watervliet that offer reward after reward as you work your way downstream toward the Hudson. Some of those rewards are natural, and some of them of man-made, with one of the most prominent of the latter category being the drainage tower, in the middle of a deep woods flood-control basin.

I did a Creek Walk this weekend, including a visit to the tower. I was stunned to see how much it appeared to have shrunk since the last time I was down there, as bits of flotsam and jetsam have washed down the gorges and piled up ever higher around its base.

It took me about three hours to travel maybe three miles, as the crow flies, though I suspect I actually walked closer to six miles with all of the meandering. Some of that time was spent walking on the creek banks, but much of it was spent actually walking in the creek itself. I also had to do several scrambles on all fours up a variety of scary screes and slopes, bits of slate and shale crumbling beneath me as I climbed. There were spots in the gorges where I suspect that had misfortune fallen upon me, it would have been a long, long time before anybody found my remains, unless a heavy rain carried them down into the drainage basin around the Tower. The sense of isolation is always awesome in those areas, even though I was never more than maybe half a mile from the developed areas around me.

That’s the best part about the woods: you can lose yourself in them, in both the scary and the wonderful senses of that phrase.

Here’s the photo documentary of this weekend’s walk, including creeks, gorges, towers and a woodtruck. Click here for the photos.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part One): Back to the Woods

One of the more popular features in my earlier blogs was a recurring series of summer photo essays called “Hidden in Suburbia.” Every photo in this series was taken within a ~12,500 acre plot, defined as a circle with a five-mile circumference, and my home sitting at its center. As the weather finally grows decent enough for exploration, I think 2011 is a good year to add to the series, seeing what’s new, and what’s changed, back in the woods around my home. For those who are new to this concept, here’s the little essay I wrote to frame it all back around 2005:

I live in a nice area called Latham, New York, middle to upper-middle class for the most part, well-kept homes in properly manicured and landscaped settings, good schools, good investment value in property, all the things one generally expects in the nicer bits of suburbia. If you draw a circle with a radius of about two and half miles around my house, you will also see that there are lots of woods. This makes the neighborhoods look nice, with backdrops of green and nice, tidy (from a distance) wild areas separating one neighborhood from another.

This is good, because I have a deep fascination with woods. Not forests, mind you, but woods. Forests are the untamed, wild places where nature is still, for the most part, in charge, and where urban, exurban and suburban development are still ages, years and/or miles and miles away. Woods, on the other hand, are the bits of forest that are left when development occurs, stands of trees immediately adjacent to suburban civilization, the dark places where all the things that suburban civilization doesn’t want to think about go to die. Or to thrive, depending on what flavor they are.

It’s shocking to find a piece of trash in a pristine forest. In suburban woods, though, you expect to find trash. People dump in there late at night, so they don’t have to drive all the way to the landfill. Kids steal stuff and take it out there to hide it, then forget about it. Teenagers smoke, drink, make out, break bottles and blow things up in the woods, leaving a variety of interesting detritus. The woods are the places where suburbia’s darkness lurks in wait, like something from a David Lynch movie.

But it’s not the specters and spirits of the woods that interest me, really, as much as it the stuff you find back there, and how the community sort of turns its collective consciousness away from it all. It may be right behind your house, but if it’s in the woods, then it’s okay, as long as it stays there and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. But I like thinking about it . . . and so I ride and walk through muck, mud, weeds and woods looking for the things that no one else wants to.

Here are some of those hidden things: Click here for photos . . .

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.


Full disclaimer up front: I know that there are few things lamer on the internet than blog posts about blog posting. So what follows here, in this post, by definition, completely sucks. I know that. I absolve you if you want to leave and go read something else, somewhere else. I probably would do so myself, if I was you. So to you folks with taste and common sense . . buh-bye! See you next time, when I have something actually entertaining and not self-indulgent to write about! Thanks for stopping by! Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out! Ciao!

Okay, then. For those few of you who remain, and who clearly are masochistic souls who want to keep reading the most self-indulgent variety of blog posts possible, this is for you: I wrote a poem six years ago that contained the following two stanzas, among others:

Look and see the pundit on the TV screen:
desperately he gibbers, spouting bile and spleen.
He’s shouted right down, by all the other monkey-suit wearing clowns,
as the networks clap with glee.
We’re entertained by screaming, don’t bother with the meaning,
why does he have to yell at me?

Look and see the blogger, honesty his pledge,
making news in real time on the cutting edge.
His facts are all wrong, he doesn’t care, ’cause his convictions are strong,
though he makes no guarantees.
Quote him today for others, confuse your friends and brothers,
why does he have to yell at me?

I don’t remember what annoyed me enough at the time to write those lines, but I find the sentiments they contain becoming ever more common for me again in 2011, when more often than not, my time online results in me getting up from computer, shaking my head and walking away annoyed. And what, I ask all three of you still reading, is the point of spending time doing that? My life is filled with so many good things involving so many people with whom I share a strong, real emotional bond. I am so, so incredibly blessed in that regard, all things considered. So what do I gain from spending intellectual or emotional energy being annoyed by people I barely know, or don’t know at all? A: Nothing, duh.

I’ve written before here (and elsewhere) about the pleasures associated with destroying things that I once worked hard to create. And I must report that over the past couple of months, my enjoyment of the act of creative destruction has grown exponentially. I’ve had a website since 1993, but I blew it up, and it’s gone, and that feels good. I’ve had a blog since 1995 (though I did not know it was called a blog then), but I vaporized it, and it no longer exists (except for the pieces being held hostage by a corporate entity that I regretfully got into bed with), and I am pleased. I used to have 550 Facebook friends, but now I have 45, the vast majority of the survivors being folks from my high school days with whom I have no other means to communicate, and this feels appropriate.

Those of you who I e-mail or see or talk to regularly, or those of you who have never communicated with me since you befriended me, or those of you who befriended me in the hopes that I might review your concert or album . . . well, sorry, and no disrespect intended, but I’ve deleted you, since you don’t need to read my routine piffle and tripe updates any more than I need to read yours. Let’s interact in the real world someday, alright? Cool.

The sense of liberation associated with these acts of creative destruction is profound. It’s similar to the sense of freedom I felt when I stopped hosting a television show, or when I finished my Masters Degree, or when I gave up my byline in a local newsweekly. Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I had no public persona at all. But then, for a variety of reasons, some sound, some not, I worked very hard and I built a fairly powerful personal brand in our local market. And that was cool, for a while. But now, in 2011, I find myself increasingly wishing to be free of the bonds that such a public persona imposes. I’m ready to return to a place of greater anonymity, where no one outside of my family, friendly and professional circles pays any attention to what I do or say.

I’m vanishing, in other words. Yeah, sure, I know that there are ways to find all sorts of my old stuff online, and my footprints in the internet tubes aren’t that easily swept away, but I intend to be far more judicious and fickle about where and how often and with whom I walk online in the future. Once upon a time, I was an internet pioneer, blazing trails for others to follow. Now, I’m the old guy on the virtual corner telling the kids to get the hell off my lawn. Enough’s enough. Game, set, match. Give me my golden watch, because I’m ready to sit on the porch and rock. But, seriously: get the hell off my lawn. Now.

This website, for now, is going to be my last and only stand in terms of internet presence, unless you were an old drinking buddy, or a former band-mate, or an ex-girlfriend, or a fellow military traveler from ages and ages ago, or a college or grad school chum, in which case I’ll see you in Facebook, more privately, without a peanut gallery of gawkers. For now, anyway. I suspect I may bail on that increasingly annoying platform sometime soon as well.

This site provides me with all the creative satisfaction I require at this point, as far as the general public is concerned. Beyond that, I’ve shared more than enough, for long enough. It’s selfish time now. I have some other “real world” creative endeavors that I’m working on, to which only my family is privy at this point. I also have loads and load of things happening on a professional and community volunteer front, and the folks involved there know what they need to know, when they need to know it.

It’s hard to imagine that, once upon a time, these kinds of social connections were viewed as being more than enough, isn’t it? I’m ready to wax nostalgic. I’m ready to go quaint. I’m vanishing, and it feels so good . . .

In closing, I apologize again to the couple of you who stuck with this post to end, as there are few things lamer than watching a writer using an internet outlet to complain about internet outlets. That’s overflowing with suck, and I know it. But I’m putting this post here tonight anyway, so that when people grumble about being deleted from my Facebook friends list, or about why my Worst Rock Band Ever page is gone, or about what happened to the Hidden in Suburbia photo-essays, I don’t have to expend any intellectual energy on replying, but can just cut and paste this link instead.

Because I’m vanishing. Poof. Pow. Gone . . .

Sprawl Sad

I’ve spent most of my adult life (and all of my time in New York’s Capital Region) living in the suburbs. I am perfectly happy and comfortable with this situation, and will never, ever apologize for this particular life choice, though it has become trendy and fashionable in some of the social and media circles in which I move to denigrate the suburbs and those who live within them.

I find much of this sort of anti-suburban sentiment to be heavily freighted with a distasteful intellectual elitism, as though my choice (and the choices of millions of other like me) to commute to the city where I work, rather than actually living there, was made because I wasn’t smart enough to make a different one. I’m not stupid, and I’m not materialistic, and I’m not a cultural Philistine, so if your social critique of the suburban lifestyle involves you looking down your nose at me in a patronizing fashion while listening to NPR in your little downtown apartment, then I’m really not at all interested in hearing from you.

Your scorn and/or pity are meaningless to me, because I love my home, and I love my yard, and I find just as much value, culture, history and opportunity in my suburban neighborhood as you do in your urban one. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to exploring the bits of suburbia around me that many folks never see, in fact, as documented in my occasional (and probably ongoing this summer) Hidden In Suburbia series. There are just as many mysteries, secrets, surprises and fascinating stories to be found in the woods around my suburban house as there are in Albany’s Center Square, if you’re willing to invest the time and energy to look for them. And I am.

All of that being said, I did appreciate an article by Peter B. Fleisher that ran in the print version of the Times Union a few weeks ago, called “Sprawl Without Growth Is Ruining Too Much of New York.” Fleisher’s logic is sound, and he offers an economic argument against additional development that’s predicated on something other than an ivory tower distaste for people who choose to make their homes in the suburbs. I accept his intellectual and moral positions on the matter, and appreciate the way in which he frames them.

The point of Fleisher’s article was really hammered home to me a week or so ago when I had some time to kill in the car before picking up my daughter from an appointment, and noticed a new development going into a formerly-wooded area where I’ve spent a lot of time on my bike in the past. I turned into the development, and was dismayed to see just how much of the forest, and just how many pretty little streams and gorges had been destroyed to put up home stock that doesn’t seem to be needed, based on population trends in our market. Essentially everything I wrote about in this particular Hidden in Suburbia report is gone now, including the incredible deep woods racing oval that must have supported generations worth of kids and their bicycles. (Former aerial view of this great, lost hidden treasure above).

I suspect, frankly, that a big part of the rationale for this development going in is that it is in one of the increasingly uncommon undeveloped regions within the Loudonville Zip Code, and there is a social cache associated with that address that makes such properties desirable, thereby leading developers to develop them, never mind the toxic waste dumps in the valley just down the hill from many of them. I don’t damn or condemn the folks who will buy these houses, because I believe that they will be just as happy with their lives there as I am with mine here, but I do wish that our local town government would perhaps step up to the plate a little more aggressively to ask why we need more housing stock when our population is stagnating or declining.

If they build it, we will come, and we will be happy to have done so. So the solution to the sprawl without growth conundrum isn’t to denigrate or deny happiness to suburban homeowners, but rather to have the many, many layers of local and regional government that exist hereabouts more actively involved in trying to ensure some realistic correlation between development and population trends. I’m not sure that the tax dollars generated by this new development will provide a greater good to the community than the bicycle loop in the woods did for generations of kids who once lived around here, and it makes me sad to think that the kids who grow up in this development won’t have the opportunity to love these woods as much their predecessors (and I) once did.

Though I would never condemn their parents for making the choices they make to live there. We all chase happiness in our own fashions, and none of us deserve to have our happiness sneered at by snobs or elites.

‘weeniversary and whatnot

1. ‘weeniversary: In addition to being a fun, filling holiday, Hallowe’en is also my parents’ wedding anniversary. My father was on active duty as a young officer in the Marine Corps back when they decided they wanted to get married, and back in those hardcore, oldschool days, when the Corps wanted you somewhere, you went, no matter what else you might have going on in your life. So if the only available day for the nuptials, given your busy work schedule, was Hallowe’en, then hey presto Semper Fi, that was the day you got married! I always admired my Mom and Dad for spending their anniversary day taking us out to grub for candy or staying at home shoveling candy into the gaping, clamoring maws of the other neighborhood grubs. So happy anniversary to my Mom in Beaufort and my Dad in Glory. Now give us some candy.

2. Don’t Say Mope: I have been very expectantly awaiting the new album from the Cure, 4:13 Dream, which arrived on Tuesday and is, I think, the best thing they’ve issued since The Head on the Door in 1985. While most folks only pay attention to Robert Smith when they consider the Cure, I’m one of those music geeks who also appreciates the less-well-known members of bands, and what makes this new disc so good is the return of prodigal guitarist Porl Thompson, who’d last been heard with the Cure on 1992’s Wish. The records since that time had featured guitar by Perry Bamonte and keyboards by Roger O’Donnell, both of whom I considered wan and uninteresting, so those albums suffered by my accounting. Thompson’s got a great, unique tone and attack to his instrument, and his return restores the best frontline the Cure have ever had, with Robert Smith (guitar, keyboards), Thompson (guitar) and stalwart Simon Gallup (bass). The other thing that people always seem to bring up whenever the Cure have a new album out is the whole mope-rock factor, since they did put out some dreary records back in the day. But fact of the matter is, for every dirge that Smith writes these days, he writes three wiggly, funny, goofy, sexy tracks, and his chops as a pop craftsman are truly impeccable. Add in the fact that his voice at 50 sounds better than it did at 20, and this record is a winner from start to finish, a wonderful return to form by a group who I really adored once upon a time. It’s too bad that they get blamed for emo kids (like Bauhaus get blamed for goth kids), since those latter day wannabes are pale immitations of one passing facet of those groups’ styles, minus the humor and warmth. 4:13 Dream isn’t mopey at all, no matter what the critics will tell you. It’s giddy and sweet, and I like it bunches.

3. Gym Rat: Since March or thereabouts, the co-pilot and I have been playing five games of 21 Rebound every work day at lunch time, and most weekend days from April to September were filled playing golf with Marcia, while I spent non-golf days tearing up my body on my bike doing the Hidden in Suburbia series. Weather has ended the golf season at this point, and the 21 Rebound season is getting close to wrapping up, since we’ve been out playing in blowing snow at 34 degrees for a couple of days now. (I actually do better on those days than I do most times, since the insanely-high-percentage three-pointer shooting co-pilot not being able to feel his hands sort of levels the playing field a bit). So in order to keep fit over the winter, Marcia and I re-joined our neighborhood gym a month or so ago, and I’ve been giving it my usual masochistic applomb with daily attendance since that time. I have a short attention span, so what I like most about the gym is the fact that I can do three or four things for fifteen or twenty minutes and get an hour’s workout in without getting too skull-crushingly bored. I’ve been doing cycling machines, ellipticals, playing basketball, running on their indoor track, and for the first time since college putting on boxing gloves and giving the heavy bag a thorough what-for. There is something very satisfying about beating up dead weight for ten or fifteen minutes. Plus it’s a darned good workout to keep on your toes through a simulated Golden Gloves match with the heavy bag, and much more enjoyable than actually boxing other people, because the bag doesn’t punch you in the head when you let your guard down.

Out of The Woods

In addition to the fun I have photographing suburban weirdness in the woods, the Hidden in Suburbia project has also always been about getting the most exercise I can get on a bicycle in the shortest amount of time, so I’m not away from family or home that much during the weekend.

This weekend, however, Marcia and Katelin are in Minnesota visiting family and doing college tours, so I decided to get outside of my little five-mile circle and do some road work today. I ended up doing a 67-mile loop: from Latham up to Mechanicville, then to Round Lake, Ballston Lake, Scotia, Rotterdam Junction, Schenectady, and back to Latham via the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Trail.

I’d forgotten both how nice it is to actually get somewhere on the bike, and how relatively easy it is to ride on pavement, instead of on this. I’m a little bit stiff and sore an hour after getting off the bike, but nothing that a spell in the hot tub won’t fix.

One of the other things I usually do when Marcia and Katelin are gone is watch movies that they wouldn’t enjoy. Last night, I stumbled upon one that was completely unexpectedly fun and entertaining: Doomsday. It was like some hyper-fueld combo of Road Warrior, 28 Days Later and The Highlander. Completely over-the-top big, stupid fun, with excellent stunts and visuals throughout. It’s the intellectual equivalent of Strawberry Yoo Hoo, sure, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it, now does it?

Road Warrior

I took my Suzuki SX4 into the shop today for its 15,000 mile service. I’ve been driving the car for three days short of six months. That’s 177 days. Or an average of 84 miles per day. Every day. If I was a law-abiding, speed limit-driving citizen and did 55 mph diligently, that would be 1 hour and 32 minutes in the car. Every day. Over 177 days, that’s a total of about 11 days and six hours spent behind the wheel. It all adds up when your home and your office are 58 miles apart. Fortunately, I generally don’t mind driving, since I get to listen to music and chat with the co-pilot, who commutes about 40 of the 58 miles with me every day. Marcia and I have been sort of casually starting to look for property in Columbia County, to cut my commute down while not making Marcia’s much longer, but I have a hard time finding the commute itself to be sufficient incentive to move. More pressing are factors like the fact that we have so much equity in our current home that we will be penalized in the financial aid sweepstakes when Katelin heads off to college in 2009. How perverse is that to think that we would be better off financially to sell this house and take out a big mortgage in order to make ourselves look less well-off so we don’t have to pay full college tuition? I don’t like to ponder such policy matters, even though I’m getting my degree in that field. And I also don’t like to ponder weather like we’re getting tomorrow, since that does create the one situation where the long drive is a good deal less than pleasant, what with all the ice, snow and generally yuckiness falling out of the sky. Do I ramble? Was that too many thoughts compressed into one paragraph? If so, that’s what writing papers for school does to me. Sorry.