Monday, January 6, 2014

Is Ignorance an Excuse?

Here is a test. The Final Jeopardy answer a few nights ago was:

When evidence was lacking, juries of yore would reply with this Latin word meaning “We do not know”; now it means a dunce.

Quick, the Jeopardy music is playing. Do you know the question?

As an intellectual exercise, I knew it: What is ignoramus? I’m really good at book smart, especially when it comes to trivia. As for street smart, or mechanical smart—not so much. All of which explains why I lived out being an ignoramus in so many ways last Friday. Here are the not-so-prideful details.

We in Glen Rock were experiencing our first significant snowfall of the year. We had had a few small snow showers with minimal accumulation in December, but not enough to demand the snow blower that has sat pretty much dormant in my garage for the past few years. The machine had been pretty lonely, and I had not really taken good care of its needs, such as draining the gas between winters and checking the carburetor et al. Which came back to bite me in the you-know-where.

So Friday morning, I opened the garage, brought out the snow blower and my trusty gas can, checked and filled the gas tank, and set to start up the machine to clean our long and winding driveway of the white stuff. I turned the dials to what I thought were the correct settings and pulled the cord to start up the monster. It gave a little whirr but had no intention of turning over. So I tried altering the settings of the dials, pulled again, and no change. What does a mechanical non-genius do in such a situation? I brought out the manual, which, amazingly, I found in the garage right near the machine. (I’ve used it before obviously.) Even more amazing was that I had indeed done the settings properly. But the darn thing wouldn’t cooperate. So I called the repair place that I had used to tune up the snow blower 2-3 years ago. He immediately said, “Bet you left the gas in the tank all summer, right?” Uh-huh. “The carburetor probably needs cleaning. You can bring it in today, and I can probably have it repaired by the end of the week.” Uh-huh. “Or you could try to drain the gas yourself and hope it starts.” Uh-huh. “I’ll bring it to you in a few minutes,” I said.

You can tell this is not me because the machine
is actually running and blowing snow.
So I opened up the back of Audrey’s Jeep and spent a few minutes working on the right angle to lift the snow blower and get it into the car. It hung out a little from the back, but I wasn’t worried. I should have been, of course.

I got about one block from home, moving very slowly, when I needed to make a left turn. The car did the turn well, but the snow blower decided to make a quick exit. I watched in horror as it bounced to the road. Not embarrassing enough? I discovered that a neighbor was driving not far behind me. He pulled up to my window and asked, “Is that your machine in the road?” Uh-huh. He hopped out and helped me reload it. This time, I dropped down the back seats to allow the machine to go farther inside. He also helped me lower the handle to allow the back door to shut. Pretty elementary stuff for those not mechanically handicapped. (Sadly, I didn’t have a manual to consult for transporting your snow blower by car to the repair shop.)

I dropped off the snow blower. As I pushed it into his storage area, I laughingly said, “I bet I’m not the only person who left the gas inside, right?” “Nope,” he replied. He pointed to a machine standing right next to mine—same model, same problem, it turned out. Its owner and I would both be shoveling our snow by hand that day.  

So I came home and did the shoveling with the help of our dog, who loves the snow but is not such a fan of the snow shovel. She tried to bite it a few times, taking a stealth position and then leaping ahead. At least someone was acting stupider than I today, I thought. Then I remembered that it was a dog I was comparing myself to.

Back inside, I tackled another mechanical activity that turned out to pose its own drama. Our son had given Audrey and me a “GoPro” video camera as a Chanukah present. It had been delivered just two days before, and we decided to take some time to open it up and check it out. Sadly, I could not figure out how to get the camera out of its intricate packaging. There was a diagram with pictures but not words. Frankly, I didn’t understand the pictures. (I can just imagine what you are thinking about me, and you’d be right.) Audrey suggested googling to see if anyone else had resolved the important “how to open your GoPro” problem and posted the answer. As it turned out, lots of people had. We were even directed to a YouTube video called “How to unpackage your GoPro 3,” and it was 16 minutes long! Take that, you who disparage me! Others have also walked this lonely road of ignorance. We watched the video and somehow managed to free the tiny camera from its challenging protective packaging.

Somewhere hiding inside is a GoPro yearning to be free!
But we still couldn’t make movies because the micro SD card was missing, whatever that is. We searched for several minutes until we spotted the small print in the manual noting that it was “sold separately.” I bought one of those yesterday, and, because our daughter was visiting, it is now properly enclosed in the camera. (She did major in mechanical engineering in college, after all.) And I plan to use it to film me as I blow the snow from our driveway later this week. That is, if the repair place calls me about picking up the machine by then and if I can be less of an ignoramus about turning both the snow blower and GoPro on and pointing each in the right direction.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Poets and Playwrights

We open in Venice,
We next play Verona,
Then on to Cremona.
Lotsa laughs in Cremona.
Our next jump is Parma,
That stingy, dingy menace,
Then Mantua, then Padua,
Then we open again, where?
We open in Venice,
We next play Verona. . .

Our last day of biking saw us heading from Lazise on Lake Garda to Verona. Harvey and Phyllis had been primed for this part of the trip even before we left New York and New Jersey. Harvey had loaded the song “We Open in Venice” from Kiss Me, Kate onto his iPhone, and began playing it at full volume in the courtyard of the hotel while we got ready to begin biking. The opening lyrics are printed above. But a warning: If you start singing the song, it will stay in your head forever.

Not all of us were beginning on bikes that day because of a different warning. The first part of our route was going to be mostly uphill, we were informed. Carlotta and Claudio didn’t even sugarcoat this by referring to “rolling hills.” We were going to be climbing for most of the first six kilometers. Audrey wisely joined a number of other tour members in choosing the van over the bike for those six kilometers. I foolishly decided to gut it out.

I found myself in the lowest gears on both wheels much too quickly. So I wasn’t making a lot of progress distance-wise or speed-wise. My psyche took an even bigger hit a few minutes later. In the midst of a climb, an elderly woman turned right in front of me from a side street. She was wearing a dress, raincoat, and street shoes and carrying a load of groceries in a basket on the front of her bike. She was even smoking a small cigar. Those proved to be no impediment for her. She quickly left me far behind. I was a little mortified. Probably sensing this, several of our group members later said they thought the woman’s bike had been motorized, and that’s why she left me in the dust. I think they were just trying to make me feel better.  Nevertheless, I’m choosing to believe that version. It’s what I told Audrey when we met up with the van at the six-kilometer mark.

The rest of our trip to Verona was pretty flat and really scenic. Then, we hit a snag. A bridge we were scheduled to cross had been washed out in recent rainstorms. Our guides had to improvise, and they planned a new route that took us mostly onto city streets once we reached Verona. We weaved our way through traffic and just ignored some of the blaring horns and threatening hand gestures that “encouraged” us to get out of the way. Our entrance had been a little nerve-wracking, but we were ready to “play Verona” for the next few hours. (I wish we could have spent days there.) One of the first sights we took in was the Arena, which is similar to but older than the Coliseum in Rome. In Roman times, gladiators had fought in the Arena; the night before we arrived, Cher had packed the house there. This probably deserves a witty comment, but I think I will pass.

We just missed seeing Cher at the Arena.

We ate lunch and wandered around the city on our own for a few hours before we were scheduled to have a guide meet us and give us the real tour. During our explorations, Audrey hoped to find the perfect Italian leather pocketbook, but time was short, and prices were too high. Oh well. . . .

From the beginning, we had referred to this bike trip in north-central Italy as “Our Shakespearean Tour.” After all, we began biking in Mantua and ended up in Verona. Both cities play prominent roles in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and both cities use that play prominently in their marketing to tourists. It is next to impossible for visitors to Verona to pass up a chance to stand beneath Juliet’s balcony and be thrown into a romantic trance, and why should they? Even if Juliet was just a fictional character and her story was based only loosely on a real feud in Renaissance-era Verona, she comes alive in Verona, and she sparks “lovely (and loving) thoughts” in all of us. When our tour guide led us to the purported Capulet courtyard overlooked by that famous balcony, she urged us to “rub the boobies” of a statue of Juliet there, so we would have good luck in romance. It had worked for her, she noted. After rubbing the boobies, she had been able to win the affections of her new boyfriend, a 35-year-old male she was convincing to finally leave his parents’ home. “You know Italian men are never able to leave their mothers until they get married,” she joked. But the power of Juliet was helping her win him over. Somehow I resisted the urge to “rub the boobies,” but we have a photo of Harvey doing the deed. He is clearly more romantic than I.

A modern-day Juliet stands in the balcony.

This man is preparing to "rub the boobies."
Then, moments after we left Juliet’s courtyard, I spotted a sign on a doorpost in downtown Verona that identified the headquarters of the Accademia Mondiale della Poesi, the World Academy of Poetry. The sign made me realize that our tour had really been more about poetry than Shakespeare. We had covered only a small portion of Italy on our trip, but there was poetry and poets everywhere we went.

How great would it be to work for the World Academy of Poetry! 
We had spent our first two nights in the tiny town of Portovenere, perched on the Gulf of Poets. Byron had swum in those waters, and Shelley had written many of his poems while living in the area and had died tragically nearby when a boat he was aboard sank during a storm. In later days, we also rode past the birthplace of Virgil in Mantua and viewed the house where Dante lived in Verona. And now I had spotted the World Academy of Poetry, which, of course, makes me think of a story from my past. Bear with me. . . .

A grotto on the Gulf of Poets where Byron swam.

When I was in high school, I was both precocious and pretentious (no surprise). I also decided that I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poems, and, looking back with a more critical eye, most of them were not very good. I even joined the Poetry Society of Georgia, which was based in Savannah. A friend’s mother, Anita Raskin, convinced me to join. Like many of the members, she was a librarian and teacher; like very few of the members, I was a kid. I would attend meetings and even submit some of my poems for competitions. One made it into the organization’s 50th anniversary anthology. I don’t think anything literary I have accomplished has made me prouder. I found that anthology when we were cleaning out my mother’s house last year and reread the poem. No Byron or Dante, but a pretty good Goodman.

But back to Verona and poetry. I went looking for a good Dante quote about love, but Dante tends to be a little depressing even on that subject. Virgil, on the other hand, has something good to impart:

Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori. (Love conquers all, and we must yield to Love.)

 I think that’s what our tour guide in Verona was trying to tell us, too.

Audrey, Phyllis, and I (but not Harvey) joined six other tour members in deciding to take the van back to Lazise rather than brave the bike paths again, even if those last six kilometers would be mostly downhill. Our hearts were filled with love, but our knees and butts were filled with pain. Our riding days in Italy were over—at least for this year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Dangers of Biking

When last I wrote about our Italian biking adventure, I was huffing and puffing up a hill to arrive at the tiny town of Castellaro Lagusello. The next day featured a whole new set of challenges and dangers, some of which had very little to do with biking.

The day began with our guide Claudio’s crushing an attempted revolution that Audrey had begun. Audrey had asked the day before whether it wouldn’t be more convenient for all of us to gather for our pre-biking Italian lesson, direction discussion, and pep talk at 9:00 rather than 8:30. She wanted a little more sleep and a less hurried breakfast. Claudio agreed to compromise, sort of. With a twinkle in his eye, he said we could start the next morning’s meeting at 8:31! And that was indeed the time that he and Carlotta began giving us our marching (er– riding) orders the next day. We learned that the biking company had mapped out either an easy or moderate route for the beginning of our ride, but that they favored the “moderately difficult” path because it seemed easier to them than the “easy” one. Huh? I was sure that either one would tax my pedaling and gear-shifting skills, not to mention my psyche. Oh well. . . .

Danger 1 Ahead
As you can probably guess, “moderately difficult” is another way of saying "hilly." Slow, annoying ups and all-too-brief, enjoyable downs. That’s what I was expecting. What I didn’t anticipate was a series of loud gunshots that filled the air as we began climbing a long hilly section through a vast area of wooded and grassy fields. Who was shooting at us? And why?

We learned that hunting season had opened that morning. Several shotgun carrying hunters were walking through the fields looking for and firing at game—rabbits or various kinds of birds. We hoped that American bikers weren’t on their target list, too. Would I be able to duck at the same time I was trying to climb a hill, I wondered? I didn’t want to find out the answer. Luckily, we got through the fields region safely. And I didn’t have as much trouble biking as I had anticipated, in part because one of the other bikers showed me how to shift gears on the left side of the bike to ease the chain on my front wheels. Now I could give new meaning to the term “slow and steady.”

We proceeded on to the charming town of Desenzano on Lake Garda. We had a lovely lunch there—pizza, pasta, and salad, of course—and took some pictures of local ducks who were wisely avoiding leaving the lake confines during hunting season.
Ducks in Desenzano happily hide out from hunters.
 Danger 2 In the Air
As we proceeded out of town for the return trip to our hotel in Castellaro, we were bombarded by hoards of marauding gnats. I thought that I was being especially singled out by the beasts because I was wearing a bright yellow biking shirt. They must have thought I was a large, chubby light bulb, and they were attracted to it. (When we stopped later, everyone was impressed by how many dead bugs were attached to my shirt. Clearly, I was not only a light bulb but a bright yellow windshield too.) When we finally escaped the bugs, it was almost time to enter the hilly region again, this time from the other direction. And if that wasn’t enough, there was still one more danger to survive.

Gnats, Beware! This yellow shirt may be deadly!
Danger 3 On the Ground
This part of Italy is in the Po River Valley and is called Valpolicella, which is also the name of a noted wine produced in the region. Where they make wine, they usually grow grapes, right? And we passed many vineyards loaded down with fruit almost ready for picking and crushing. (I have this thing for orchards and now for vineyards, too. I am amazed by the almost mathematical precision of the placement of the trees or vines. How do the farmers judge the distances so precisely when they plant the seeds or seedlings? Very impressive!)

The grapes looked so beautiful and enticing that several of us decided to stop our bikes along the path and test out the goods. As I reached toward a vine, someone in our group sounded a warning that an interested and possibly angry farmer was watching us closely. I promise that I took only two grapes and quickly remounted my steed. They were delicious, by the way.
Grapevines in Valpolicella line up majestically and proudly show off their bounty.
The rest of the trip home was uneventful, thank goodness. And I looked forward to dinner at a nearby winery, which was surpringly established at the same location as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. This could happen only in Italy. . . .