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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Take THAT, Robert Downey, Jr.!

Another Thing That Is Different About Massachusetts

Anybody remember the book “Less Than Zero“? The 1986 breakout novel by Bret Easton Ellis (later of “American Psycho” notoriety) depicted four weeks in the lives of a bunch of rich Los Angeles kids trying to drown out their existential despair with cocaine, fast cars, and various forms of unsafe sex. Later they turned it into a movie, starring the 80’s go-to guy for existential despair, Andrew McCarthy. The first main problem with the movie was that the filmmakers tried to graft an actual “plot” onto the aimless, episodic events of the novel. The second main problem with the movie was that they left out one of my favorite lines of dialogue from the novel: In a reflective moment, pregnant with existential despair, the Andrew McCarthy character’s sort-of girlfriend (played in the film version by Jami Gertz), is driving on one of L.A.’s ubiquitous freeways. “People are afraid to merge here…” she observes blankly. While the text is making an observation about the traffic habits of Los Angelenos, the subtext is obviously referring to the general sense of isolation and existential despair felt by every character in the book. When I read the book, in my early 20’s, I thought that was pretty clever.

Later, Jen and I got free passes to see a sneak preview of the film version, and I found myself shocked – first by the sight of Robert Downey, Jr. pulling a Midnight Cowboy to support his coke habit, and second by the fact that they left out this brilliant, incisive line of dialog. What were they thinking?

Which leads directly to my first topic today – a place where Robin and I find ourselves not just “afraid” but genuinely terrified to merge: Massachusetts Traffic Rotaries.

Rotaries are similar to “roundabouts” which you may have seen in Washington, generally in residential areas where city planners want to discourage through traffic. Unlike roundabouts, though, rotaries are not designed to slow traffic down, but (as far as I can tell) to speed it up. Rotaries are roundabouts writ large, placed at the intersection of two or more freeways, engineered to allow drivers to switch freeways without ever stopping or (if you’re skilled) even reducing your speed.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to exit Hwy 57 and merge onto Hwy 5. In Washington, you might slow down and take an off-ramp, possibly even stop at a traffic light or stop sign, and eventually merge onto your chosen freeway after a long entry ramp, which would allow you to speed up and find an opening in traffic. In Massachusetts, however, you would simply rocket off the first highway and, without decreasing your speed in the slightest, shoot blindly into the whirling, deadly traffic of The Rotary – which we now refer to as “The Killin’ Wheel” – and then aim your car at the exit spoke, put the pedal to the metal, and hope for the best.

The circular road that forms The Killin’ Wheel is two lanes wide but unmarked by lane divisions. “People get killed in rotaries all the time,” Robin’s sister Jeannine tells us. “ALWAYS stay in the outside lane,” she insists, but observation indicates that experienced Massachusetts drivers try to blast through The Rotary on a trajectory approximating a straight line, refusing to recognize any lane divisions whatsoever. I find myself hovering at the entrance to The Killin’ Wheel, hoping that someone will slow down or stop, allowing me to enter unharmed. This never happens, so a line of angry drivers piles up behind me. I recall the words of Sid, the elderly guy with the dog who lives in Unit 14A: “That Rotary is deadly. They have at least a couple of accidents every day in the rotary up the street.” As I sit there, an insane merry-go-round of murderous cars careening past in front of me, honking drivers nearing the road-rage tipping point stacking up behind me, I have a moment to reflect on my own “fear of merging” and wonder if it signifies anything deeper. If it did, I could end this story on a satisfying note with me overcoming my fear, punching the gas and laughing in joyful liberation as I smoothly navigated the madly spinning Killin’ Wheel. Which would, in turn, signify my first step toward assimilation into my new environs.

Instead, what happened was this: When I became more afraid of the psychotic drivers behind me than the psychotic drivers in front of me, I awkwardly loped into The Rotary and became trapped in the inner lane, circling repeatedly until a tire-squealing near-accident between two other cars created a momentary break in the traffic, and I was able to escape into one of the exit spokes. Of course, that spoke took me in the opposite of my desired direction, and it was several hours before I arrived back at our crappy condo, but I still considered the afternoon a success: Unlike those navel-gazing nihilist coke-heads in “Less Than Zero,” I had MERGED.

Massachusetts Exploration

Robin and I are determined to find the good stuff around this new state of ours. To that end, we bought a couple of travel guides, and we’ve been checking out the recommended attractions, at least those in the western half of the state. Also, a nice woman we met in a horrible Mexican restaurant offered us some suggestions; she even gave us her email address and phone number, in case we needed further information, or if we wanted to hook up for a swingers’ party. Okay, I made up that last part, but the point I’m trying to make is: she’s not the first person to offer this kind of helpful advice. I’m not sure how the east coast got this rep for being more tight-lipped or reserved, but, judging from our own experiences thus far, it’s a bum rap, I tells ya.

The town where we are temporarily living (and which I have vowed to stop naming) is just across the Connecticut River from Springfield, the local “big” town. But don’t be misled; this is not a big town like we’re used to in the Northwest. There are a few tall office buildings and hotels downtown, and virtually NOTHING ELSE. We’ve gone downtown once, came away spooked, and don’t plan to visit again. Downtown Springfield is a ghost town. The owners of one large building spent a fair bit of change on a very modern-looking purple neon sign, advertising it as some sort of downtown shopping and dining oasis, ala Pacific Place in Seattle, but neglected to install any actual stores or restaurants. We wandered the empty hallways one Saturday afternoon, and – in its four stories of prime downtown retail space – found one CVS Pharmacy and some kind of German buffet thing that was only open from 4 to 6PM every other Saturday.

As far as I can see, there are only two reasons you might stop in Springfield: the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden. I don’t have any plans to shell out $16.99 for a visit to the Basketball thingamajig, but the lights on the basketball-shaped building look pretty neat when the sun goes down:

Springfield has a hard-on for Dr. Seuss because he was born there, and reputedly spent many hours sketching the animals in the local Forest Park Zoo. Weird Side Note: One house that our realtor showed us was just two doors down from Dr. Seuss’ childhood home! The Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden is part of a cluster of museums in downtown Springfield, collectively called the Quadrangle. They have two decent art museums – one modern, one not so much – and a natural history museum, but nothing we saw was half as exciting as the bronze statue of the Lorax:

More from the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden:

The non-modern art museum has one distinctive attraction: a collection of plaster casts made from Roman, Greek and Italian sculptures around the world. One I particularly liked depicted Moses with horns, an oddity based on a mistranslation of the Scripture that describes him coming down from Mt. Sinai, his head ringed by “horns” of light:

After marinating in the highbrow offerings of the Springfield Quadrangle, we felt it was time to venture out into the countryside and meet some real salt-of-the-earth Massachusetts folk, and what better place than McCray’s Farm, a combo mini golf / petting zoo / ice cream parlor out in South Hadley? (Robin found it on the Interwebs!

We stayed just long enough to satisfy Robin’s goat-petting fetish, and left as the parking lot starting filling up for the Teen Mini-Golf Tourney.

On Saturday, we embarked on an ambitious road trip, intending to see as many Western Massachusetts landmarks as humanly possible. From Agawam, we headed north on I-91 to our first destination: The Yankee Candle Factory in South Deerfield. Yankee Candles was started in 1969 by a high school kid who melted down his collection of broken Crayolas into a half-assed birthday gift for mommy. A lady down the street offered to buy the candle for $1.36, allowing Mikey to purchase TWO boxes of Crayolas plus a Bunsen burner, and a candle-making empire was born. Not a big candle (or incense or bath oil or French-milled soap) guy myself, I had never heard of Yankee Candles, but they are apparently a Big Deal. Several local residents, when asked what “uniquely Massachusetts” landmarks we should visit first, responded by shouting “OhMyGodTheYankeeCandleFactory!” at us without a moment’s hesitation. Their wild-eyed and slightly too loud intensity convinced us to give it a look-see.

Because The Yankee Candle Factory is the biggest attraction in the area, all sorts of other less reputable attractions have sprung up along the approaching road. I insisted we stop at a store called “The Final Markdown” hoping it would be some sort of homage to the 1980 sci-fi thriller starring Kirk Douglas, but it turned out to be just a slightly-larger-than-normal “dollar store” where some of the items cost more than a dollar. I did pick up a blister-pack collector’s set of the new Homies figurines (this time based on Italian stereotypes and named “The Palermos”) and also a cheese grater shaped like a woman wearing a hoop skirt. I think they missed a huge marketing opportunity by not having a radio jingle sung to the tune of that song by the Swedish hair-metal band Europe: “It’s the FINAL MARK-DOOOOOOOWN! Oh-Whoooaaah-Whoa! The FINAL MARK-DOWN!” but nobody asked me, so the hell with ‘em.

After the disappointment of the non-time-traveling, non-Swedish-hair-metal Final Markdown, we had high hopes for The Yankee Candle Factory, the self-proclaimed “Scenter of the Universe.”

When you first enter the Yankee Candle Factory, it seems innocuous enough – something like a Pepperidge Farms outlet crossed with a more patriotic Bed, Bath and Beyond – but then you are mesmerized by the model train circling overhead, and assaulted by the frankincense-and-myrrh spodee-oh-dee smell of candles available in two bazillion different scents, and then you enter the next room which is decorated like Santa’s toy shop complete with whirring animatronic elves, and the next room is some kind of medieval Bavarian village, then there’s an actual indoor river and waterfall, and then concealed sprinklers shower you with silvery confetti designed to look like snow, and before you know it, the psychedelic and mind-staggering winter wonderland sensory overload has driven you to fill your shopping cart with 22-ounce “Indonesian Ginger” and “Sicilian Orange” Housewarmer candles ($22.99 each).

It’s one of those things I can’t really “recommend,” per se, but, by God, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. If you have a well-developed sense of irony, or if you are actually looking for a “Mango Peach Salsa”-scented candle, you should do yourself a favor and check it out. By yourself, because we will never go there again.

From there, we drove across town to Historic Deerfield (“the best documented small town in America,” according to their website), where we toured the preserved houses and the museum. One of the defining moments in Deerfield history was a raid by French colonists and their Native American allies in 1704. The central exhibit in the museum is an old wooden door, smashed through and scarred with hatchet marks, which was damaged in the attack. Surrounding the door were testimonials from descendants of the townspeople and modern-day members of the Native American tribes who sided with the French. Needless to say, their interpretations of the event, and the significance they attached to the door, differed greatly. Kudos to the museum for attempting to present a balanced record of a traumatic event.

Interesting fact: The number one cause of death among women in 1704 Deerfield? Burns sustained while cooking food in the fireplace. The problem wasn’t the burn itself, it was the ensuing infection, which nobody knew how to treat. Thank goodness we now have modern appliances, so that our womenfolk can cook in relative safety. Ouch! Robin just kicked me.

From Deerfield, we traveled further North on 91, and then turned west on Hwy 2, the fabled “Mohawk Trail” (at least I gather it’s “fabled,” but I just read that in our guidebook).

Robin’s favorite place in the world is the Yuba River near Grass Valley, in Northern California. She spent part of her childhood there, and the river is deep and green and flows through smooth rocks where hippies smoke weed and sunbathe in the nude. One downside to moving way out East is the increased distance from the Yuba; Robin likes her a swimmin’ river. We had been talking about this on Saturday morning, and I promised to do some research and locate the best natural swimming places in our new home state, but I wasn’t hopeful. Little did we know…

Once on the Mohawk Trail (aka Hwy 2), Robin convinced me to pull off in a town named Shelburne Falls, to see something she had read about, called “The Flower Bridge.” Frankly, it sounded sort of dumb to me, but whatever: J-Dizzle knows how to keep the ladies happy. We found the bridge and walked across, and I was forced to grudgingly admit it was pretty spectacular, though the profusion of fragrant greenery made my nose run:

But THEN we walked a few blocks down the street and came across the actual Shelburne Falls:

…not to mention the Glacial Potholes beneath the falls:

…and voila! Robin found her a swimmin’ river:

Robin wanted me to strip down to my undies and jump in, but – being a naturally modest and private person – I was hesitant to expose my body to the leering gaze of bystanders. Until I saw this guy:

So I jumped in the water and climbed on the rocks, and it was gloriously cool and refreshing and made the day just about the most perfect day ever.

As the sun began its slow descent into evening, and the air cooled, we climbed out of the water, put our clothes back on, and continued on our Western Mass Exploration. By this time, we were driving through the Berkshires, a range of “mountains” running along the western border of Massachusetts. Nothing compared to the Olympics or Cascades, mind you, but eye-fillingly beautiful nonetheless. We traveled through rolling hills, rustic little towns, and dark tunnels of dense forest; over slow-moving rivers with scores of kids floating on innertubes; past weird roadside stores, antique shops and culturally reductive statues…

When we got hungry, we stopped in Williamstown, the home of Williams College. Looking at my guidebook, I see that Williamstown originally had the unfortunate name of “West Hoosuck Plantation.” Yikes. In any case, downtown Williamstown is the center of the college, as well, so the impressive old college buildings are mingled in with private residences and upscale boutiques and restaurants.

As we got out of the car, we flinched at what sounded like cannon fire. I soon realized that the sound was thunder; but unlike any thunder I have ever heard. It actually sounded like a series of small bombs going off – explosions, not that longer, crackling electrical sound I associate with thunder. Moments before, the sun had been shining brightly. Now, black clouds were encroaching. We entered a Thai restaurant as the storm broke, dumping an extraordinary volume of water on the unfortunate people still outside. As the thunder became louder and more persistent, we ordered an appetizer. As the appetizer reached our table, the power went out. Looking out the window, we could see that the entire city, as far as we could see, was without electricity. The waitstaff began lighting candles and placing them on the tables, and the restaurant patrons, deprived of their Panang, grew increasingly restless in the darkened room. We waited for fifteen minutes, then, fearing that the crowd might descend into barbarism and depravity, we decided to look for someplace else to eat. Driving out of town, we saw why the power was out:

We eventually found another place to eat, and drove home in the dark, relying on the nav system to get us back to that unnamed city in which we live. Robin selected the “Motown and More” playlist on my iPod, and we sang along to all the songs we knew, and decided that we like Massachusetts and we didn’t make a mistake by moving here.

When we arrived back at our stupid condo, we were greeted by the unmistakable scent of fresh dog poop; poor Quasar had been stuck in the house all day. Apparently, those bones Robin got for him gave him the runs. But even that didn’t ruin the day.

Lost Luggage Update

(Editor’s Note: Regular readers will recall that the idiots at Delta lost Robin’s luggage, that a mysterious woman known only as “Sharon” has been taunting us with phone messages saying that SHE now has Robin’s luggage, and that, after one exhausting encounter with the Delta bureaucracy, Jason washed his hands of the whole affair. Robin now gives us an update on this breaking story…)

I accepted defeat, filed the claim for my lost luggage, and tried to move on emotionally. Three weeks later, I am taking an afternoon catnap and the phone rings. I am too sleepy to pick it up, so I don’t. Later, I check my messages and it’s the mysterious Sharon again! Calling on August 28th, to tell me my suitcase is still at her house! She says that she finally got through to the Delta corporate office and complained, but that is all she can do for now, and maybe she will call me again. Once again, she does not leave her phone number, and it is still blocked on my caller ID!

Now I am really going berserk. First, because I didn’t answer the phone! Oh my god she was right there, I could have had her at last, and I didn’t frigging pick up! Second, I am going crazy because she didn’t leave her number! AGAIN! WHAT IS UP WITH THIS WOMAN??? Argggh!

Infuriated all over again, I call Delta. The “representative” tells me that she will look in my file and see if she finds anything new. I immediately lose my temper and shout “You won’t find anything new! I want to speak to a manager!” So she gets someone named Rachel, who is a manager (or claims to be). I don’t even try to hide my fury from Rachel, yelling, “Delta’s incompetence is beyond belief! I feel like you stole my property from me! How hard is this??? The woman says my suitcase is still at her house! She’s been calling and talking to every Delta person she can contact, and she even spoke to someone in your corporate office!”

“That isn’t possible” Rachel replied. “It takes one week to get through to corporate.”

“She’s been trying for THREE weeks!” I shout back, veering dangerously close to hysteria.

“Well”, Rachel responds coldly, “what is her brother’s file reference number so I can cross check your bags? Without that number, I can’t do anything.”

You can imagine the rest of the conversation. I told her she was mean and that she lacked compassion, among other things. I ended our conversation by screaming “THANKS FOR NOTHING!” and slamming down the phone.

About 30 minutes later, to my astonishment, Rachel calls back. She says she has good news – my situation sounded so crazy that she did a little investigation. With that carrot of hope, my anger melts and I apologize profusely for my outburst. She laughs it off and tells me that she found a record of a Sharon calling Reagan International airport in DC on August 12th, asking them to pick up the bag. They never did. Rachel was also able to figure out how this debacle began: on July 30th, Delta lost Sharon’s brother’s bag. Sharon’s brother is “Mr. Whitehead.” On August 6th Delta recycled Mr. Whitehead’s bag number and gave it to me. When someone saw my bag with his number, they sent it off to him in Olney, MD. (Doesn’t it seem like a good idea not to recycle the numbers of lost bags? What am I missing here?)

Rachel said she went “very high up the chain” at Reagan and put in a message for them to get it together, pick up that bag, and get it to me post-haste. Of course, she isn’t the first to send a message to Reagan on my behalf, but hopefully this “very high up the chain” dimension will make a difference. I am supposed to call her back on Thursday to check the progress.

In the meantime, my cell phone greeting now begins with a plea to Sharon to leave her number, followed by “anyone else, please leave a message.” Stay tuned…

Updates on Other Important Stuff

I started work at my new office last Monday. We live in Massachusetts, but my office is across the border, in Connecticut. It’s about 34 miles each way, and I hate commuting, but there’s really no traffic here to speak of, so I’ll live. Everybody in my new office has been tremendously nice and accommodating, and I somehow finagled my own office with a window, so I can’t complain.

Robin begins teaching at Westfield State College on September 5th, but she’s been meeting her colleagues and decorating her office and purchasing posters with radical political slogans to hang in there. She’s excited. Tomorrow there’s a reception at the college, which I’ll attend, and on Saturday (which also happens to be her birthday) her new colleagues are throwing a welcome party for her, so all seems to be well.

Robin’s shiny new Massachusetts Drivers’ License arrived in the mail.

We’ve put offers in on a couple of houses, but so far, nothing has panned out.

Last night we celebrated our third anniversary with dinner in Northampton, outside on the deck, in the balmy night air. We tipped our glasses to the survival of our relationship through all of the changes and our new life in New England.

The pile of construction debris is still there. By our count, this is Day 21.

2 Comments

  1. And … just what is the coffee situation anyway????

  2. Are you people getting this??? They lost my bag on August 7th, and it has been sitting at this woman’s house for 22 days! With her begging and screaming on one end for them to get it, and me begging and screaming on the other end! Begging and screaming for 22 days! We both have more information than Delta does. I am telling you, carry on if you can! If you can’t, cram everything you wouldn’t want to lose in your backpack. Or send UPS! There better be some free tickets at the end of this fiasco!

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