What are you doing next year… on New Year’s Eve?

New Years Eve Buffalo N.Y. - Photo copyright Buffalo Rising http://www.buffalorising.com/

As Holiday’s go, New Years has never been a big favorite of mine. Oh sure, I’d had my share of memorable ones like:

My First Taste of Whiskey,

Rolling around in the snow making out with my Girlfriend’s best friend,

and a few memorable evenings in downtown buffalo watching the ball drop from the top of the Niagara Mohawk building. But for the most part, I’ve stayed at home and left the partying to others. Coming so soon after Christmas, it’s always been a bit anticlimactic anyway. New Year’s doesn’t have any special traditions, beside Dick Clark, and public drunkeness, and Lord knows I’ve never waited for a holiday just to get drunk in public. It doesn’t even have any special songs aside from one that no one knows the words to, and the one I quote in the title of this post.

So tonight the 20 Prospect clan will be celebrating New Years Eve the same way we usually do, with our annual Fondue dinner, and a lot of yawning. Hey, at least it’s a tradition.

So wherever you may be, and whatever you may be doing, I’d like to send you my heart felt wishes for a Happy, safe, and Peacefull 2012.

 

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Canada – Russia ’72


The World Junior Hockey Tournament is currently underway in Alberta unbeknownst to anyone outside of Canada, and a small handful of Hockey Cultists in the States. The World Juniors are a hockey version of March Madness for Canadians. Junior Hockey is the highest level of amateur hockey in the world today, played by boys between 16 & 20 years old. This is as close as Canada comes to big time college sports, and they take this sh!t really seriously.

In Canada, the teenage kids that show the most promise of making it to the pro’s sign contracts during their high school years, move away from home to live with host families in the cities where they play, and play a full professional hockey schedule, traveling across the country in buses, playing in front of small town crowds, and busting each other in the jaw as they chase their dreams. It’s what minor league baseball was a century ago, before money turned it into a professional sport.

Each year at the holidays the best Under 20 players in the world represent their country in a two week long international tournament. The winners are crowned World Champions, given a gold medal, and then sent back to po-dunk-ville to play out the remainder of the season, and hopefully move into the pro’s someday. As I said at the beginning, aside from Canadians and a handful of hockey nuts in the U.S., no one in the world pays any attention to this.

Which is kind of sad really, because now that the Olympics & World Championships are open to professionals, and College Sports have become de-facto professional sports, the World Juniors is as close to a true amateur championship as is left in the stick & ball sports. It wasn’t always this way.

Once upon a time the Olympics represented the pinnacle of amateur sports where athletes with day jobs competed for glory, and little else in return. That began to change a long time ago. After World War Two when the Soviet Union decided to make amateur sports a marketing tool for the Soviet system, and started 24/7 year round training of “amateur” athletes, it was only a matter of time.

Until the 1940’s, no one in the Soviet Union even played ice hockey. What they played was a version of field hockey on skates called “Bandy”. Played on a soccer sized ice rink without boards, using a ball, and curved wooden stick, it had little in common with the sport of ice hockey, besides ice.

There is probably no greater testament to the effectiveness of focused, centralized planning than the Soviet athletic system. Given total control, and ample resources, within a span of 10 years they managed to turn a handful of bandy players into the best international ice hockey players in the world. In 1954 they announced their arrival on the world stage by beating Canada for the Gold Medal at the world championships.

Canadians are a funny lot. They are as unassuming, and self deprecating a bunch of folks as you will ever find, except when it comes to hockey. Where hockey is concerned they rival the U.S. in jingoistic nationalism. So losing to the Soviets was a blow to their pride. And when the Soviets continued to dominate international ice hockey for the next 16 years, the only way that the Canadians could reconcile it in their mind was to assure themselves that the Soviets were using what amounted to professional hockey players, to play against a handful of true amateur junior teams from Canada. Surely if Canada were to put their best professional players out on the ice there would be no contest. (An argument that Americans would seize upon after losing the gold medal in basketball to the Soviets in the 1972 summer Olympics)

But deep within the Canadian psyche there was a shadow of doubt.

So when it was announced that the Soviet Union would play a team of Canadian NHL All Stars in a series of 8 exhibition games in September of 1972, the entire nation felt at last they would be vindicated, and the Soviets would be set in their place. What followed was a month that came to define for a generation what it meant to be a Canadian.

Growing up in Western New York I was vaguely aware of the 72’ Summit Series from references that were made to it in later years as the Canada Cup became a quadrennial event, and Soviet teams would periodically come to North America to play exhibitions against the NHL. But I never truly understood what the Summit Series meant to Canadians. It is their “Miracle on Ice” times 10.

So I was excited, and curious when I picked up a DVD copy of “Canada Russia ‘72” a Canadian, documentary style mini-series filmed in 2006. Over the course of a couple of evenings this month I watched and was blown away.

Only Canadians could make a film about 1972, and portray the Soviets as protagonists, and themselves as the bad guys. Seriously, if Americans would have filmed this they would have turned it into Rocky 3. To their eternal credit, Canadians are nothing if not honest about their warts, and this miniseries displayed them in all their excruciatingly painful detail. To say that the NHL all stars that were picked to play the Soviets took the games lightly would be an understatement. They couldn’t have been cockier, or more impertinent had they tried. This film doesn’t pull any punches, it shows what a bunch of assh0les the NHL all stars were to each other, and the Soviets.

As the series begins the Canadians are stunned as the Soviets win 2 out of 4 games on Canadian soil, and tie one. The Canadian players are frustrated, and begin to throw tantrums like spoiled children. They cuss, and swear, and fight like hoodlums. By game 4 in Vancouver the country turns against them, and starts booing.

In a post game TV interview Phil Esposito rallies the team, and the country, by looking straight into the camera and delivering one of the most honest and heartfelt appeals I’ve ever seen a professional athlete make. When Game 5 starts in Moscow a week later and the Canadians jump out to a 4-1 lead you get the sense that momentum has shifted, and now they are playing for real.

Then just like that the Soviets score 4 unanswered goals and win 5-4. Down 3 games to 1, with only 3 left to play in Moscow, it looks like the Canadians are toast, but despite their attitudes, and cockiness, you still can’t help but root for them. That my friends is good film making.

They rally and win the next two games by 1 goal, to tie the series at 3-3-1. Then, trailing by 2 goals going into the 3rd period of the eighth and final game, Phil Esposito puts the entire country on his back and scores one of the greatest clutch goals of all time, then sets up Yves Cournoyer to tie the game at 5.

With time ticking down, and 34 seconds left to play Paul Henderson scores the goal heard round the world to put Canada ahead 6-5. Watching the movie, and listening to the actual play by play call of Foster Hewitt I got goose bumps, and wanted to high five somebody. That goal, and the play by play call of “Henderson has scored for Canada” is to Canadians, everything that Al Michaels “Do you believe in miracles?” is for Americans and more.

The movie left me wanting to stand up and sing “O’ Canada” at the end. If you are even remotely a fan of the sport of Hockey, or lived during the cold war years of the 1970’s, I cannot recommend this DVD enough. Not only do they capture the excitement of the games, but they illustrate the look and feel of the time in a way that few documentaries can.

Judging by the obscene prices on Amazon and eBay, the movie appears to be out of print. If you can pick up a used copy for less than $20 like I did, jump on it. You will not be disappointed. Also? Cover the kid’s ears when watching it. The language is foul enough to peel paint off of the walls.

The Blizzard of ’77

As our year without a winter grinds along beneath the grey permacast skies, I am sitting at my desk sipping strong coffee and dreaming of the epic snowstorms of my youth. Growing up in a place where the weather is always trying to kill you, you develop a real connoisseurs appreciation for storms. To an uninitiated southerner all snow storms may look the same, but to a northerner they come in several different sizes and shapes. It’s kinda like the way that Eskimos have 57 Varieties of snow. Or was that Heinz?

Digressing…

Photo copyright Erno Rossi from his book White Death http:\\www.whitedeath.com

Growing up in Western New York epic snow falls were fairly regular occurrences. We all remember the Blizzard of 77′, but there were other big snows too. The Ice Storm of 76′, the Six Pack blizzard of 1985, the unexpected 2 ft. snowfall on Nov. 20th, 2000 that stranded thousands, the 82″ that fell from Dec 24th – 28th, 2001, and the Friday the 13th Storm in October of 2006. I have never experienced anything close to these snowfalls in my 19 winters in Minnesota. We just don’t have enough moisture in the air to get that kind of snow. Not that the 77 Blizzard was about Lake Effect snow. It was a very different and unique storm altogether, and one that may never be repeated.

Uh oh, I feel a story coming on…

1977

The Winter of 1976-77 began with some unseasonably cold weather. There was snow in October that year, and the average temperature for the month of November was 34ºF, the coldest on record. The cold continued into December and the snow began to pile up. By December 14th the water temperature in Lake Erie had reached 32ºF, the earliest date it had been that cold. As the snow kept falling through December and into January, the Lake froze over, and the cold temperatures (January average a bone chilling 13ºF) kept the snow from melting, and forming a crust. The result was that by the time the Blizzard began on January 28th, there had already been 150 inches of snow in Buffalo that season, and the snow depth was measured at 33 inches. Several feet of fine powdery snow covered the ice surface out on Lake Erie. What happened next was totally unexpected.

snow squall coming in off of Lake Erie

On January 28th the wind gusts began, the temperature dropped and it began snowing. But within 2-3 hours of the storm hitting, the radar in Buffalo showed no sign of snowfall, yet visibility was zero. The 60 mile per hour gusts had begun blowing the snow off of the Lake ice and onto land. The high winds lasted for days, and the drifts that resulted buried houses, and cars in densely packed drifts that were impervious to plowing. Gridlock ensued, and the coming days and weeks were a struggle. There had already been a natural gas shortage prior to the Blizzard that winter, and the bitter cold temperatures only made things worse.

Abandoned car on Kennsington off ramp

Dad spent a lot of long days at work. Working on a streetlight and line crew for Niagara Mohawk, bad weather always meant overtime. But for a 9 year old kid like me, once the winds died down, it was a wonderland. School was canceled for 2 weeks, and my friends and I spent all our time climbing the snow piles on Prospect, and digging tunnels through the front yard. We played outside for hours, only coming inside to eat, thaw out, and change into a dry pair of mittens.

With the Natural Gas shortage, and the bitter cold temps, the inside of 20 Prospect wasn’t much warmer than a meat locker. Coming in from the cold, with face, and wrists raw and red from playing in the snow I would go into the bathroom, and run my hands under cold water until the feeling returned.

Why cold water? Well, Mom taught me that it was safer to warm them under cold water, than under hot, since your skin was so numb you wouldn’t know if you were burning them with scalding water. You only turned the hot water on when the feeling began to return to your hands.

Seriously. I’m sure my Canadian readers can back me up on this.

To warm the rest of my body, I would sit on the heat register in the living room, and wrap an afghan around me, letting the hot air blow it up like a balloon until the grate began to burn grid marks into my butt cheeks. Warmth never felt so good.

We were out of school for two whole weeks, mostly due to the energy crisis, and bitter cold temps more so than the snow. Batavia hadn’t been hit as hard as Buffalo, and parts of the snow belt. Our streets were cleared within a few days, and the resulting snow piles reached as high as the 2nd story windows in some places.

In Buffalo, there are stories of cars that disappeared in parking lots, and stayed buried until Springtime. For us though the mountains of snow became a maze of tunnels and forts that we used for running snow ball fights, and games of war until our Mom’s made us dig them up for fear of one of us being buried and suffocating inside them.

Nights were spent watching TV, and fighting boredom with endless games of cards around the kitchen table. Now that I think about it, I can probably trace my hatred of card games back to those interminable snowbound weeks.

In the end, they had to extend our school year into late June to make up for the lost time, but it was worth it. For Dad’s part the overtime pay was a boon that most likely led to our summer vacation in Florida the following summer.

The stories of where you were, and what you did during the Blizzard of 1977, are legion. The storm, coming during the Mid 70’s malaise that had struck the Rust Belt, was like a punch in the gut, and Buffalo’s image has never recovered. I doubt I will ever see anything like it again in my lifetime.

I will say this about the winters in the Midwest and the Great Plains, though. I learned very quickly to never venture out of town during a snow storm. When I moved here in 1993 I drove up from Nashville through a heavy snow in Central Illinois. Out there on the prairie, there isn’t anything in 500 miles to stop the wind, and it doesn’t take much to become lost. That was one white knuckle drive, and I vowed never to take a foolish chance like that again. Unlike Western New York, a person could spend days buried in a drift waiting to be found. Just like that girl in New Mexico last week.

For more photos, and eyewitness accounts, go to this audio slideshow put together by the Niagara Gazette

Polaroid Christmas

Merry Christmas 1982

Another unseasonably warm day here on the Front Porch, as our year without a winter continues. Climate change sucks. I want 10F and 2 feet of snow. If I wanted brown grass, drizzle and 50 degrees I’d live in Cincinnati. If this continues I may have to seriously consider a move to Canada.

But enough whining! It’s the 3rd Day of Christmas! Time to eat some French Hens and play with all the cool new toys that the fat man brought you. Or if you are home with the kids, time to restock the wine and start counting the days until the kids go back to school.

One of my longstanding holiday traditions is working the dead zone between Christmas and New Years. With so little happening, it’s like having a week of vacation days in the office to surf the internet catch up on work. Yeah, that’s it. Catch up on work.

(looks around nervously)

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, sitting at my desk, bored out of my mind, trying not to let the Ohio Valley weather get me down.

So back to the interwebz for entertainment. Please god let there be one blogger out there that didn’t O.D. on Christmas cookies, and isn’t drooling on their keyboard in a sugar induced coma. PLEASE! Entertain me! Or I will begin posting photos like this

Watching over their flock

repost from last Christmas Eve…


The stars blink on in the cold clear air. Already the sunset has faded, and the indigo night descends on the desert.

The shepherd warms his hands over the fragile flicker of flame, and adds another branch to the fire.
The sheep huddle close, bleating petitions into the dark. Mothers warm their lambs beneath their wooly affection.

In the distance a dog barks, and a murmur runs through the flock.

Tongues of flame lick the fresh wood, and the light flares. The shepherd lifts his eyes away from the fire toward the sound of the barking.

The sheep stir around him, and pull closer to the circle of light. Reaching into his bag, he pulls out a stone, and turns it over in his hand. It’s smooth surface, having long since lost the memory of midday sun, is icy to his touch as he slips it into his sling.
Grabbing his staff, he rises and walks slowly towards the sound. It is growing now, but drowned by the nervousness of the sheep. Squinting into the abyss of night that has descended, he sees a glow of light coming from beyond the crest of the hill.

No wolf he’s known can light the darkness. He thinks of staying with his flock, but cannot draw his eyes away from the golden light. His feet move of their own will, and even the rocks seem to beckon him onward.
The darkness recedes as he reaches the summit, and the sound of the sheep has faded into the distance. Far below in the valley

he hears

singing.

Christmas in Tonawanda

This post is about a single Christmas, but its truly an amalgam of many Christmases. These memories were compiled over the course of my childhood, and over time they have come to blend together to form but a single memory, of many similar events, all of which contained some, if not all of the following events. So that is why I have not dated this post to a single year. It could have been any, or all of the years between 1974 and 1986.

My father’s mother was known to us as “Ma”, and his father as “Pa” although we were far from the hillbilly type. Dad had grown up in McKees Rocks, PA and on the Northside of Buffalo (Black Rock and Riverside) and had lived in several different rental homes along the way. When I was small they both worked in the DuPont factory in Tonawanda, N.Y. just across the line from Riverside, but at some point before or after Pa died in 1972, Ma had retired. The fact is that in my memory she is always wearing a house dress standing in her kitchen as we sit at the table talking and snacking on government cheese, with pepperoni and mustard. But this is not about those Sunday afternoon visits to Ma’s, it is about Christmas.

After opening our gifts at 20 Prospect, and going to Mass at St. Joe’s we would make the drive up to Ma’s. She lived in Tonawanda, not far from the Niagara River, in a 3 Bedroom Ranch home built at the very beginning of the 1960’s. I mention the three bedroom’s, because up until Pa died in 1972, there were 3 people living in the house. Ma, Pa, and Uncle Bobby, who wasn’t anyone’s Uncle, but an Army buddy of Pa’s that lived with them from the 60’s up until his death in the early 80’s. Each one of them had their own bedroom in the house, and like most things in my family this odd situation was never discussed. I grew up taking two things for granted, that odd living arrangements were “normal” in my family, and that my grand parents and their siblings were as crazy as bed bugs.

Ma and Pa had bought the house after living in apartments, and rental homes their whole adult lives. The neighborhood they settled in was just North of their old neighborhood, just beyond the industrial wasteland that abutted Buffalo. There were two different ways to get to their house from the Youngman Expressway. You could take the exit at Sheridan Drive, and take Two Mile Creek road past the sewage treatment plant, or you could drive past the Noco refinery to River Rd. and follow that down river to Two Mile Creek. Either way promised an olfactory experience. The smell of raw sewage, and oil is imprinted into my memory, and to this day reminds me of visits to Ma’s. That and the ever present smell of mothballs inside her home.

Since Mom & Dad liked to go to early mass, and get up to Ma’s by noon, this meant that on Christmas morning I would get to open the wonderful bounty of new toys that they showered me with (Being the baby, I was terribly spoiled 😉 ) and then promptly put them down again, and get in the car. Of course, I could always pick one or two to take with me, as Ma never bought presents for the grandkids, or anyone to my knowledge. Instead I received money in an envelope. $1 in my early years, and $5 as I came of age.

When we arrived Ma was in the kitchen, already cooking dinner, and Uncle Bobby was in his chair in the living room watching TV. My Aunt, Uncle, and cousins would arrive soon after us, and the house would fill up with the sounds of women preparing dinner, men discussing the latest round of layoffs at the Chevy plant, and kids downstairs in the basement getting into mischief. Ma’s basement was our favorite place to play. It had been partially finished off, and boasted a large dining room table, where dinner would be served, a second stove & oven, the usual washing machinery, and Pa’s bar.

By all accounts my Grandpa was a character. He died before I was old enough to remember him, but the stories that have been told paint him as a fun loving, heavy drinking, practical joker. He was a bear of a man, who’d played semi-pro football in Pennsylvania during the depression. Everybody loved Pa, and he loved his grandkids. Well, my siblings anyway. I was too young for him to play with before he died. When they had bought the house, Pa had immediately begun remodeling the back of the basement into his bar. It being the early 60’s, the lights, couches, and decorations had a certain swankiness common to the age. The bar itself was a gorgeous piece of maple, that twinkled in the light of his beer & liquor signs. It was fully stocked, and in the little pantry behind it, he had cases of booze. We used to love to sit on the stools and play with the swizzle sticks he brought back from his trips to Vegas.

Since Ma didn’t drink, the booze meant nothing to her, and it was her standard practice to fill the punchbowl at holidays with 2 cans of Hi-C and a fifth of whatever was handy. Usually this was a bottle of Pa’s whiskey. This being the 70’s, the parents were content to let the kids drink from the punchbowl, so unbeknown to us, that slightly tart stingy taste in Ma’s fruit punch was making us drunker than skunks. No wonder we usually fell asleep shortly after dinner.

Schenley's Three Feather's Whiskey

Dinner was always a feast suitable for a medieval king. Two or three different kinds of meat, usually Turkey and Beef, sometimes Ham, and all of Ma’s unique side dishes. “Golf Ball” stuffing, Potato “peanuts” (dumplings), and creamed spinach. She was a wonderful cook, and like most women of her generation, never wrote down a recipe. Most of her “original” dishes came from memory, and would be lost to us as she aged, and that memory slowly faded.

After dinner the grownups would sit around the table in the basement, and talk grownup stuff, while the kids retreated upstairs to goof around in the living room, drink some more booze punch, and slowly become sleepy on the couch. The TV was never turned on after dinner. Instead we sat in the kaleidoscopic glow of Ma’s aluminum tree.

Her Christmas tree was the most beautiful tree in the world to me. Shiny silver aluminum, covered in bright pink & blue glass ornaments, it rotated slowly as multicolor spotlights shone up on it. The result was a psychedelic array of colors swirling around on the ceiling. Studio 54 paled in comparison to the light display. I miss that tree so much. No Blue Spruce, Balsam, or Douglas Fir will ever compare with that ersatz, jet-age, silver tree.

When night came, we’d pile back into the car, and make our way home to Batavia, stuffed, buzzed, and sated. Ma would stand in the window of her living room next to that glittering apparition, and wave goodbye as we pulled away from the curb. Then I’d lean my forehead against the window, and look up into the night sky as the lights of passing cars threw shadows across the backseat. Another Christmas come and gone.

As the years passed, time and distance slowly eroded the people around the table. Uncle Bobby died in the early 80’s. My Uncle Joe would stop coming altogether, as his relationship with my Aunt deteriorated. My siblings moved away one and one, and didn’t always have the means to get back home for Christmas. My Aunt sold her place, and moved into Ma’s along with my cousins who never could make it out of the nest. Finally, Ma’s stroke brought an end to it, and when she passed away, bad feelings between my Aunt and my family brought an end to our Christmas visits entirely.

The house is still there, and my Aunt still lives in it with my cousin Joe, who never did leave home. I drove past it on my recent trip to Western New York. It has changed some, but the neighborhood remains very much the same as it was when I was a child. I didn’t stop, and wouldn’t know what to say it I did. Dad passed away over 10 years ago now, and I haven’t seen or spoken with my Aunt since the funeral. They say time heals all wounds, but it also erodes things away. These Christmases only remain as memories, twinkling like an aluminum tree, across the wide canyon of time.

Entropy

There are days when the kids ask me to help them with their 6th grade Math homework, that I am puzzled at how I ever managed to graduate with a Mechanical Engineering degree. If long division is a struggle for me now, derivatives, and differential equations may as well be hieroglyphics scrawled across a page. No, my engineering degree is a testament to the elasticity of the human brain. Stretch it often enough in any one direction and you can expand its volume. Let it sit still and it will shrivel until it is the size and shape of a raisin.

It amazes me that once upon a time my brain was more trained in the complexities of science, and mathematical logic, than it was intuition and cognition. How could it have been so different? Did the fact that my neurons flowed through other portions of my brain effect my personality, or change the core of who I am? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

I should have seen it coming. The indications were there even during the height of my engineering studies. The clues were written in my textbook:

“Like all other physical laws used in classical thermodynamics, the second law cannot be proved but is a statement of observed phenomena.” – Howell & Buckius, Fundamentals of Engineering Thermodynamics, (1987) pg. 183

I can remember the effect that the 2nd law of thermodynamics had upon me at the time. I began to realize the presence of entropy all around me, yet it took me another 2 years to come to a full understanding of them.

Science is the application of mathematical logic to explain the way that the world operates. Every equation we learned for determining strength, stress, or motion included a small fudge factor to account for losses & friction. The problems we were given to solve required us to ignore the world around the problem, and focus on an arbitrary ideal system.

But no system is ideal, no process is completely reversible. The world is non-linear.

By the end of my senior year I was pointing it out to class mates with incredulity. “This is bullshit. You cannot leave out the effects of friction and losses on these problems. You cannot isolate a system from the world around it for the simplification of calculating an answer.”

They looked at me and shrugged. “So what? Go along with it and get your diploma.” So I did.

But I knew the hollowness of it all. Logic could only approximate what actually happened around us. Reality often defies logic. We become so conditioned to ignoring the effects of chaos and loss that we block out their presence in our life, and pretend they do not exist. And when we are faced with events that do not fit into our neat definition of the world, we kick and cry like spoiled children.

Not fair! Not fair!

Life is not fair. Human behavior is not completely predictable. We are constantly choosing to do things that we know are illogical, that we know will lead to results that are not in our own best interest.

Emotion is not logic.

Love is not beholden to mathematics.

So I learned to not ignore intuition. We need it as much as reason and logic to function in this world.

This is why there are two halves to our brains.

This is what makes us human.

In the end, everything

falls

apart.