Archive for the 'Friends and Family' Category

Listen to the Lion

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Three weeks just fly by, when one is engaged in engrossing and challenging work in a novel environment. Teaching Torts and Contracts and Remedies in a posh precinct of London so full of museums it seems to serve as a warehouse of Empire has kept your reporter almost too busy to blog.

But it has passed in a flash, and now we are off to Amsterdam for 6 days of R&R before diving back into real life in Watertown. We are already assiduously avoiding desperate emails from flummoxed colleagues and needy children, all asking when we will be back. Too soon, too soon.

Meanwhile, our main worry is the authenticity of the somewhat shady last minute on-line travel agency from whom we obtained our air tickets and hotel reservations. We keep flashing in our mind’s eye to our chagrin on learning that our agency is merely a front for some Mongolian Mafia and our reservations no more than decorative ink on cheap copy paper.

We know not a soul in Holland, not anymore, although a close examination of the Dowbrigade stats reveals a hardcore of readers. Anyone aware of happenings or cyber events next week in Amsterdam, let us know.

The plan, if these reservations are real, is to stay at the Shipshol Airport hotel tonight, and move to the Van Gogh hotel tomorrow, on the Museumplatz, near the Big Three museums; the Van Gogh, the Reichsmuseum (Rembrant, etc.) and the modern art museum. This plaza is near Vondelpark, the biggest botanical refuge in the city, a bit away from the Dam and the major tourist areas. Lovely area, if we remember from our previous visits.

Added interesting note – as we hurry to post this last message before we cut the cord (ubiquitous wifi on Campus here in London) and head off into the adventurous part of the trip, Skynews on the TV is broadcasting live from Heathrow, the airport we are heading for, reporting that 141 flights have been cancelled, hundred yard lines, flooding, etc. Seems the situation is dire.

Although our flight isn’t supposed to leave for 8 hours, maybe we’ll head out as soon as they kick us out of the flat, at 10 am. Smells like news.

We will make an effort to post a few times from Cybercafes in the Low Countries.

Hats On the Henley

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Henley HatAs a seasoned veteran of  many Head of the Charles Regattas, held on the Charles River every fall, we felt an obligation to attend the august English equivalent, the Royal Henley Regatta at Henley-on-Thames.

We have never actually ROWED on the Charles or the Thames, mind you, but we have cheered on many a friend and the boats of our alma mater over the years. And so last Saturday we headed for the picturesque town of Henley-on-Thames, about an hour southeast of London, where we met a friend whose daughter rowed for Brown.

In addition, the Harvard Heavies were favorites for the prestigeious Queens Cup. Any athletic contest is more engrossing when one has a dog in the fight.

However, once there we had serious trouble keeping our eyes on the river. Everywhere  we looked, it seemed, women were wearing outrageous, spectacular, unique and uniformly ugly HATS. Every size, shape and color, but all featuring some bizarre, unbalanced or seemingly random embellishment.

At first we thought it was a joke (we spied a few prime examples on the train out from London), but once we saw these dames strutting and preening on the banks of the Thames, we realized these were serious fashion statements.  All we could do was start snapping with the Nikon.

Here are the results.

Trashing the Tate

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dowbrigade at the tateHere in London, the only place we see panic and dismay at the recent rash of attempted car bombings in Great Britain is on the softly glowing screens of the Toshiba TV in our London flat and our trusty laptop. Newscasters here are calling the plot the “Doctor Bombers.” Puts a whole new spin on Michael Moore’s “Sicko.”

In the streets of London, life goes on pretty much as usual. People walking their dogs, hustling down streets and lanes burdened under bags and boxes. Sweet secretaries, harried clerks named Clive, adolescent riff-raff looking as indolent as possible, students and soccer players and tons and tons of tourists, each in their own world, chatting on the phone, plugged into iPods or jiving with friends, nobody seems to be worrying about terrorism.

Which is probably not surprising. To a dyslexic Yank, the most dangerous thing on London’s street is the traffic. It seems to come from all sides. Yes, we are aware that they drive on the left on this side of the pond, but in addition to that drivers fly around corners with seeming total disregard for inattentive pedestrians.

The attitude in the street seems more akin to Latin America, where anyone who can’t afford a car had better watch out, than to Harvard Square, where drivers pussyfoot and crawl around corners out of fear of running over a Kennedy scion or the future King of Moldavia.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, use of turn signals seems to be optional, and parking, even on major thoroughfares, is allowed in either direction, facing or following the flow of traffic, resulting in drivers cutting suddenly across lanes to snag choice parking spots. And yet, despite the chaotic conditions and numerous near-misses, we have yet to witness an actual accident.

However, today, on the way to the Tate Modern, we were almost flattened by a diaper delivery vehicle, which careened around the corner in front of Christopher Wren’s masterpiece St. Paul’s Cathedral and practically plastered us to a bollard as we were trying to take a snapshot of a tugboat on the Thames.

Had we been taken to Hospital directly from that unfortunate incident, we wouldn’t have missed much. The building housing the museum, a mammoth former power plant, is impressive, but once inside we had trouble telling the actual art from empty display cases, electrical fixtures in the walls and various apparently abandoned satchels and packages which don’t seem to bother anyone much in this terror-prone city. Guess that means they must be art.

There was an entire exhibit of “found object” art, meaning all sorts of trash and common objects which were somehow magically transubstantiated into “art” because some so-called “artist” slapped a name tag and a price tag on them.

Truth be told, the Dowbrigade has never really “gotten” modern art. In fact, we consider it to a pretentious refuge for talentfree wannabes who couldn’t draw a dollar sign yet insisted that they were creative talents on the scale of a da Vinci or Donatello.

We don’t consider much of anything post-Impressionism more than pop culture or passing curiosity, and since the Tate Modern seemed to start around 1900, there wasn’t much power in the plant for our taste.

One exception to our general disinterest in 20th century art is surrealism. We had hopefully noted that the Tate is currently featuring a special exhibit on Dali and film. Upon arriving at the museum, however, we discovered that the Special Exhibit had a Special Price of 12 pounds ($24), and, adding insult to injury, the powers that be had removed EVERY SINGLE DALI from the permanent collection and rehung them in the restricted admission area.

After an hour of wandering around among works we were unable to even categorize as art, we ordered a five-dollar cup of tea at one of the poshly-priced cafes strategically situated around the museum, and found an empty seat near the door where more affluent and discerning patrons were exiting the Dali film exhibit. Perhaps, we reflected, as a failed artist , we were unable to respect any art we could have conceivably created ourself.

Every time the big exit door to the Special Exhibit opened, we could see a large Dali oil handing tantalizingly at an acute angle on a wall beyond. It was the closest we got all day to seeing a work we really wanted to see.

See the Dowbrigade’s Photos from England

Pre Post Practice

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firstlondWandering about Old Blighty, the Dowbrigade has escaped to a tranquil English Garden belong to his new friend Norm, of DynEd fame, while recovering from the transatlantic flight and preparing for the legal decathalon which begins Monday.

It’s been 36 years since the last time we were kicked out of merry olde England, but they seem to be ready to let bygones be bygones and we were admitted without preconditions. At first, it hardly seemed like we were in a foreign country; all the signs were in English, and the architecture of the airport and the highway presented no novelties. Even the fact that everyone was driving on the wrong side of the street seemed a mere glitch in our dislexic wrold-view.

But when we got to Norm’s place, in a cheery rural town in the English countryside called Chearsley, suddenly it seemed we had been dropped into a Hobbit prequel. Shady, winding paths like green tunnels through the vines and bushes, stone cottages with thatched doors, houses with names like “Hobbleston” and “Turnip Close”, a 13th century church with lapidary stones worn to illegibility, a pub called the Bell, flowers, berries, nuts, ferns, vines and thorn bushes everywhere, dogs, cats and burros peeking from behind stone walls and banks of bushes, everything altogether foreign once one looks closely.

Much dizzying discussion of teaching, programming, interface design, information management and the weather, meeting people and drinking caffinated beverages has ensued. More acclimation exercises planned for this evening. By tomorrow weshould be fully recovered and ready to begin exploring.

No thought yet to the fact that we have to being teaching the entire history and structure of the US Legal System, case by case, begining Monday 9am, to 30 whip-smart Euro-lawyers. Time enough to worry about that on Sunday…..

Stay tuned.

Berkman Denizens Take Home the Gelt

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liwilliams.jpg Three of the top Berkman denizens were rewarded for their brilliant ideas, but more than that, for their ability to transform their ideas into concrete programs that actually improve people’s lives in the real world…

The future of journalism is in your hands.

That was the message yesterday as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation handed out more than $11 million in prize money to various bloggers and computer programmers, and organizations ranging from MIT to MTV, for proposals that will empower ordinary people to participate in digital media.

Lisa Williams , founder of Placeblogger, [and H2otown-db note] won $222,000 towards further developing the website — basically “the blogosphere’s answer to the AP.” Placeblogger runs a streaming digest from blogs across the world, and ultimately Watertown resident Williams would like to be able to create feeds of local information for cellphones, blogs, and e-mail.

Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School created a website in 2004 that aggregates blogs from across the world. Yesterday, he won $244,000 to help train bloggers in developing countries and rural areas.

David Ardia , also of the Berkman Center, won $250,000 to support the Citizen Media Law Project , an online legal resource for citizen journalists.

from the Boston Globe

Congratulations, to the three of them. Lisa and Ethan are two of the smartest and nicest people we know, and are sure to use the money to make a positive impact on-line and off in other people’s lives. David we don’t know, but his project sounds like something we should check out, especially as we have been working more and more in the field of legal English, now a must for lawyers all over the world.

Meanwhile, our online staff feel that the Dowbrigade News deserves a piece of that action. We have to get back on the magic mailing list for grant and prize money. With an award like that, we wouldn’t have to teach so many hours we’re too tired to blog when we get home! Of course, we would have to come up with some grant-worthy project. Something to empower a downtrodden and neglected constituency. The best we’ve come up with so far is a clearinghouse for information related to the mysterious mass disappearance of America’s bees. Bees seem downtrodden and neglected, and the big cell phone companies constitute a suitable corporate culprit.

But any other suggestions from the constituency would be appreciated.

Watertown Armenian Extreme Bingo

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bbing.jpgWe awoke this morning at the crack of dawn, 6 am, when the weak sunlight seeped through the as yet unspring-cleaned dingy window. We lay in bed thinking about aquatic mammals – specifically, why they don’t die of thirst. Can they live, unlike other mammals, without fresh water? Do they somehow desalinize salt water? Do they get thirsty?

Until the ever-surprising Norma Yvonne gave us something better to think about. Norma has been inspirational since her citizenship ceremony, significantly upgrading our opinion of American women. Using an ingenious system of obvious rewards and subconscious consequences, she has found a way to get me to modify my behavior without nagging.

So how could we argue when she mentioned, as if in passing, “I’d really like to go to the Bingo this afternoon. I passed the church on my walk from Watertown Square, and the doors open at 5.”?

“C’mon Norma, I just got home from work, I’ve been up since 6, and if I don’t take a nap I’m going to get very cranky,” we argued. It was 4 pm.

She didn’t answer, but then she didn’t really need to. We got into bed. We were exhausted from an hour-long workout in the rec pool at FitRec. The rec pool is 86 degrees while the lap pool is 78, and we prefer the warmer water because we are in training for our retirement to a private beach somewhere on the Pacific coast of South America, where the water is, coincidently, 86 degrees.

But we couldn’t fall asleep. We listened to a dog barking down the street and the clitter-clatter of the keyboard in Norma’s office. We kept thinking about how rarely Norma ever asks tus to take her anywhere.

“Norma” we spoke to the empty dusk above the bed, with as much enthusiasm as we could muster, “how would you like to go to Bingo?”

We’d been passing the sign for years, every time we walked or drove to Watertown Square, outside the stodgy stone façade of the St. James Armenian Church. “Bingo Tues. Nites – Doors Open at 5pm”. We always said we should check it out one day. Apparently, today was the day.

Of course, like all Americans, we had played Bingo as a child. Wednesday nights at summer camp, rainy afternoons in game rooms of seedy Miami hotels, basement rec rooms during family events. Our grandmother taught us when we were five or six, as soon as we could recognize the numbers and letters. We were not looking forward to an evening of mental stimulation; any game a six-year-old can play offers limited challenges, so we carefully tucked today’s New York Times under our arm before leaving.

We arrived shortly after 5. “Wow,” said Norma, “When I came by here an hour ago there wasn’t a single car!” Now they were jammed into every available parking space for a block and a half in all directions. Ominously, many of them sported handicapped license plates.

Inside, it looked like Dante’s Inferno as painted by Grandma Moses. A huge, institutional hall with a stage at the front, and metal-grilled windows along short sides. It contained 70 cafeteria-style Formica tables connected end to end in ten long rows, with three chairs on each side of each table. Four folded basketball backboards hung from the ceiling like giant preying mantises above our heads.

Distributed around the room, at least a few on almost every table, were slim plastic bottles in a variety of colors and designs. Complementary water, we wondered? Some kind of glue for use in the game? Hand sanitizer? Obviously something used in the game play, and provided by the house.

Together with Norma we circumnavigated the enormous hall. There were maybe 200 people distributed around the room, some alone, some in small groups. 9 out of 10 were women, their men folk presumably dead or watching sports on TV somewhere. The women were chatting, sipping coffee, a few reading. Multiple groups were playing cards for loose change. The average age in the room was at least five years over the average US life expectancy. These were survivors. And they were feeling lucky.

On the tables were what we took to be the tools of the trade: the ubiquitous little bottles, Kleenex, handiwipes, a variety of bags, plastic, cloth and paper, change purses, mammoth purses, decks of cards, drink holders, skin cream, Scotch tape and throat lozenges. Leaning against the tables were a variety of canes and walkers.

We wandered into a second, slightly smaller hall off to the right of the big one, where there an additional 30 or 40 cafeteria tables and a satellite numbers board. For overflow, we thought. Then we noticed the 40 or so bodies spaced out around the area. If the average age in the bigger room was north of average life expectancy, this collection of geriatric gamblers had them beaten by a good decade. We expected to hear the hum and beep of modern medical machinery in the background. Where were the white-coated health care professionals normally hovering over people of such advanced age? We hoped there were at least a couple of ambulances warming their motors in the parking lot outside, in anticipation of the high drama sure to unfold when the numbers start to roll out.

Frankly unnerved by this ancillary assemblage of the truly ancient, we retreated to the larger hall and sat down at an empty table near the end of one of the rows. The room built from cinderblock but was painted an attractive institutional beige and tan. Looking out over a sea of bobbing grey, while, silver, bottle brown, blue and frosted hair tones in between, we were aware of an air of intense anticipation, There was avarice in the air, and money on the tables. These ladies were serious players.

The crowd was overwhelmingly white, but not entirely. There was a sturdy middle-aged lady with a West Indian accent a couple of tables over, playing cards and chatting with three other women, and a quiet, studious-looking black gentleman sitting alone in wool sweater, scarf and sports coat. And back in the corner, to the right of the stage, a squadron of Hispanic women in red aprons and hairnets were buzzing around some sort of cafeteria, the obvious source of the Styrofoam cups of coffee and cardboard trays laden with institutional hotdogs and pizza.

We grab a nearby bottle of multicolor design to decipher their mystery. They were all varieties of a Bingo-specific product called “Dauber”. Which allows players to mark multiple cards quickly.

dabberWhile we were engrossed in reading the back of the bottle, we failed to notice a 300-lb lunch lady get up from her card game across the room and march in our direction. She was dressed in a charming pastel top which resembled a cross between a muumuu and a hospital gown. She skidded to a stop, reached out a giant hand and intoned, “Is that my Dauber?”

Slowly, in our chagrin, it dawned on us that EVERY ONE of those hundreds of bottles of dauber belonged to someone. That they had staked out their tables hours in advance, and were just killing time around the room, smoking fags out on the steps, gambling for change, waiting for the real action to start. We began to suspect we were out of our league.

The Dowbrigade was alone by this point, Norma having gone home to get her glasses once she saw how far away we were sitting from the flashboard where the numbers were displayed. We dropped the dauber like a hot curling iron and retreated into our New York Times. The behemoth returned to her card game with a withering gaze that said, “You better not have given me ay of your bad mojo when you touch ed my lucky dauber, boy, cuz you know I can find out where you live…”

A couple of minutes later, as we were starting to wonder at what time they would be calling the first numbers, the solitary black gentleman got up, went to the church lobby, and came back with a half dozen dittoed betting slips, one of which he slipped us on his way by. Solitary male solidarity? We perused the card.

Whoa. It was an order form, which players used to request cards for any or all of the 32 games of Bingo on the agenda for the night. Two things struck us immediately. The first was that the calling of numbers wasn’t scheduled to start until 7pm! The tables had literally filled (judging by the distribution of the dauber bottles) as soon as the doors opened, two full hours before the games began. These people either had extremely elaborate pre-Bingo rituals, warm-ups and psych-ups, or very little else to do.

We glanced at our watch. It was 5:30.

The second thing we noticed was that no two of the thirty two games nominally called Bingo we alike. The series started out in a somewhat familiar vein, with a game of Regular Bingo, followed by an easy-to-understand variant, Regular Bingo + 4 Corners.

But from there things quickly spiraled into the stratosphere of Bingos sophistication. Double Bingo, Diagonal Bingo, and the Letter X. One could imagine, at least, what these may have consisted of. But from there the list entered the domain of Bizarro Bingo. Games like Hatpin, Triple Postage Stamp; I.Q., Sandwich and Coverall. Who can decipher the arcane imagery of Six-pack Anywhere or Butterfly? Not us.

As we sat there, stunned by the fiendish complexity of what we had known, in our innocent youth, as a simple parlor pastime, Norma returned.

“Honey,” we began gently, “I think we better brush up on our Bingo at home before we try to run with this pack.” We showed her the list of games.

“Why didn’t you call me? You could have saved me the trip back.”

Noting the 7 pm start time she continued, “That explains why the sign says doors open at 5. Otherwise they would be camping out here from the morning on.”

“Do you want to check out the new Armenian pastry shop on the way home?”

“Sounds good.”

We have learned a lot in our three years in Watertown. The Holocaust wasn’t the only genocide in the last century. Armenians make mean pastry, and love nuts. And don’t play Bingo at an Armenian church unless you’re at the top of your game and prepared for some serious action.

Stay Away From the Chips

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poyokoAfter years of applying for every exotic posting, niche program, foreign conference and off-shore exchange related to our professional position, the Major Boston University where the Dowbrigade has been gainfully employed since ’88 (a good year), despite our reputation as a brilliant but eccentric loose cannon we are finally getting to go somewhere.

In July, just in time for Wimbledon, the Dowbrigade will be traveling to exotic London, of all places, to teach the basics of the American Legal System, of all things.

It has been 36 years since we have been to the Olde Cuntry. The last time we were there we were busted for smoking a chillum huddled under an azalea bush in the Queens Garden across from Buckingham Palace while waiting for the changing of the guard, and given 48 hours to leave the country.

Which we did. We guess we’ll find out if the Bobbie who told us to do so and with a straight face wrote down our passport numbers in his little, leather-bound black book managed to get the information into our “permanent file”.

Hopefully, some things have changed in the last 36 years, both in Merry Olde England and in the personal habits of the Dowbrigade, but not too much. We envision erudite intellectual morning discourse on topics like Habeas Corpus, Res Juridica, and Sanjaya Malakar, rousing afternoon mixed doubles with a smashing (on court and off) heiress with the demeanor of Anne Robinson (the Queen of Mean), and evenings spent in tweedy smoke-filled pubs chatting up marvelously accented locals with tales of Yankee daring do.

Accordingly, we have been monitoring news about all things British, specifically in the areas in which we will be spending time, so as to be prepared for whatever we may encounter. Unfortunately, yesterday we came across the following item:

A man burst into a busy central London restaurant and chopped off his own penis with a knife in front of horrified diners, police and reports said today.

The man – identified by the Sun as a 35-year-old Polish national – ran into Zizzi, in the Strand, at 9pm on Sunday.

“This guy came running in then charged into the kitchen, got a massive knife and started waving it about,” Stuart McMahon, who was eating at the restaurant with his girlfriend, told the paper. “Everyone was screaming and running out as he jumped on a table, dropped his trousers and popped his penis out. Then he cut it off. I couldn’t believe it.”

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said a man aged between 30 and 40 was the only person hurt in the incident, and that his injuries were self-inflicted.

He was taken to hospital, where his condition was described as stable.

From the Guardian Unlimited

We’ve been warned about London restaurants. Luckily, our flat comes with a kitchen……

High Holy Days

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In Israel they won’t be passing many dubbies this Passover. The country’s pro-pot Green Leaf Party ("Aleh Yarok") has sent a mass e-mail to its members warning that hemp-related products may be a no-no for those who keep Kosher during Pesach. According the party’s spokeswoman, "we are considering announcing a ban on everything containing hemp just to be on the safe side. We are going with the rabbis on this. People should remove all cannabis and hemp from their homes." Oy Vey!

from the Washington Post

What! Israel has a pro-pot political party? Who knew? Actually, when the Dowbrigade was there last, 37 years ago, nobody was smoking pot. They were too busy smoking hashish.

But apparently times have changed, and cannabis is not Kosher during Passover. But wait, this is Israel, and these are the Chosen People, and things are never that simple. One of the good points of Judaism, to an independent cur like the Dowbrigade, is that it, like Islam, has no Pope. No ultimate authority, Papal edicts, definitive ruling or excommunication. Just like the factitious schools and sects of Islam, in Judaism every Rabbi has his or her own opinion, which carries weight directly proportional to his or her reputation and respect in religious circles. We decided to investigate further.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at the marijuana story page at the Jerusalem Post was the huge banner ad at the top of the page for Rudy Guliani. Interesting, that the ex-mayor of NYC is courting cash and favor in the Holy Land. What’s up with that?

Anyway, the JP reports that :

Of the dozen rabbis whom The Jerusalem Post questioned on this issue, none offered a conclusive statement about how hemp should be classified for Pessah. As Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Bat Ayin explained, the issue ultimately boils down to an individual decision by each rabbi about whether hemp seeds themselves could be considered edible. If a rabbi decides that the seeds are edible, then hemp – and, by extension, marijuana – would not be considered permissible for Pessah.

"There is no problem with hemp clothing, and of course, anything that is taken for medicinal purposes would be fine," said Kohn. "Many would look at it like cottonseed oil. There are a variety of opinions. If one considered it edible, then it is included in kitniyot."

from the Jerusalem Post

Ya gotta love it. As in any true system of relativistic morality, it all depends on how you look at things. If you consider the seeds edible, then it is not kosher. But hashish has no seeds, consisting of the resinous excretions of the unfertilized female plants. Even when pat is cooking into brownies, cookies or cake, the stems and seeds are meticulously removed, and only the leaves and buds are cooked and eaten.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether the prohibition applies only to eaten cannabis, as opposed to the smoked variety. Of course, if it is not Kosher, you are supposed to remove it from your house. Does that mean you can go out and smoke it in the bushes?

Obviously, the Rabbis can go ’round and ’round on topics like this one. It could keep the Sanhedrin buzzing for weeks. Any Rabbis who are also members of Aleh Yarok could get lost in the discussion for the rest of their careers.

Everyone knows that Jews love to argue. No one could argue with that, except Jews.

As far as the old Dowbrigade, it sure brings back memories. There one particular hash house we remember, in a run-down section of Jaffa, an ancient Arab port city a few klicks south of Tel Aviv. From the outside it looked like one more squat, one-story cement storefront, no windows and no signs, crowded in among tire patchers and spice sellers and unidentified doorways guarded by darkly dangerous dudes.

When you knocked on the heavy wooden door with its stained but oiled steel bolts and hinges, a steel slat slid back at about eye level, and you’d get the once over. If you passed muster, you passed inside, and for a minute you were blinded by the change in ambient light level.

After your eyes adjusted to the dim, smoky atmosphere, you noticed that every available surface, walls, floor and ceiling, was covered with fabulously intricate and tightly woven rugs in deep wool colors, earthen browns and dark molten reds, geometric designs which would become become orders of magnitude more fantastical by the end of the visit.

Spaced out around the room, in the corners and along the walls, were rough circles of pillows, made from an assortment of richly woven silks and wools. Typically, 2 or 3 of the circles would be occupied on a lazy weekday afternoon, each with 5 or 6 assorted Arab gentlemen, some seemingly in their teens, young and voluble although respectful, some seemingly the ancient grandfathers of the same teenagers, but all dressed in similar long white flowing robes.

In the center of each circle was an elaborate four-foot high hookah, cast bronze, with multiple hoses snaking their way to the assorted smokers. The hoses were wrapped in rich, dark velvet sewn with leather straps, and tipped with solid silver mouthpieces. Some of the groups were smoking tobacco, some were smoking hashish, and some were mixing or alternating.

Smokables and steaming sweet tea were brought to the customers by a pair of 10 or 11 year-old boys. An order for hashish was served up in the form of "fingers" of reddish Lebanese resin. A "finger" was a tootsie-roll sized and shaped chunk of congealed cannabis concentrate weighing it at about 7 grams and costing, in those days in Arab Israel about 5 or 6 dollars. According to our sources. An order for tea was served up in chipped white porcelain mugs.

These dens of indigenous iniquity were open from around lunchtime until the wee hours of the morning, seven days a week. As far as we can remember, they didn’t close for Passover.

A Christmas Story

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Despite the season of peace and goodwill, the Dowbrigade household has for the past week been enveloped in an acute pre-Christmas crisis.

Nothing as mundane as a cash-flow shortage, or as dramatic as domestic abuse, it was mysterious and disturbing nonetheless. The baby Jesuses were missing.

A bit of background. Among her endearing qualities, which are legion, Norma Yvonne counts a charming attraction for all things miniature, from tiny books with postage-stamp pages, thru weird Barbie paraphernalia, to an impressive menagerie of teeny tiny animals cleverly crafted from a variety of substances by native craftspeople from around the world.

As it happens, one of her prized collections consists of dozens of fiendishly detailed creche scenes from around the world, carved or molded variously from wood, soapstone, ivory, tagua, onyx, brass, teak, marble, tin, glass, paper mache, plastic and rock candy. Every year about two weeks before the big day, when she digs out all the rest of the holiday decorations, the special bells and statures, and candles and wreaths,napkins and tablecloths, hangings and sheets and towels and mugs, the assorted manger scenes go on display, most of them in the living room, but others scattered strategically round the apartment.

For a final touch of realism, Norma refrains from placing in the center of each tiny diorama the figure of baby Jesus, on the theory that "He hasn’t been born yet." Then, early on Christmas morning, she tiptoes around the apartment in her pajamas and meticulously places each devilishly detailed edition of the Christ Child in his respective manger.

So it was with some concern that we noticed our dear wife, a couple of weeks ago, rummaging desperately through the entire flotsam and jetsam collected in our basement during a decade of acquisition and accumulation, like a feral hedgehog rooting for her last nuts and berries after a particularly brutal winter.

"What are you looking for?" we asked.

"My Baby Jesuses are missing!" There was an unsettling edge of panic in her voice. "All of them, except for the ones that are part of the scenes themselves."

"You mean somebody went down the basement, opened every creche you have, and took out all the baby Jesuses? That’s diabolical!"

"No, I did that. I thought that since they represented Jesus himself, they deserve to be stored separately, in a special place. Now I can’t remember where the special place is."

We offered to help her look, but she immediately declined our aid on the grounds that we would only mess things up and confuse her more. She was probably right. We retired to our electronic nest.

Eventually she found them, just in time for their dramatic collective virgin birth, safe and sound, in an old cookie tin wrapped inside a velvet bag in the back of a never used drawer in the antique end table we have converted to a TV stand.

Good thing, since we just found the following article in today’s Boston Globe, about a rash of these Baby Jesus thefts. The Dowbrigade was on the verge of calling the authorities to report a serial Christ Childnapper working the area.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Rash of Baby Jesus Kidnappings Across Nation

In Chicago, 32 plastic baby Jesus dolls were stolen from Nativity displays set up in people’s front yards. The kidnappers lined up all the dolls along the fence outside a Chicago woman’s home. She turned them over to her parish priest.

Similar creche crimes occurred in at least 35 cities from Fayetteville, N.C., to Mission Viejo, Calif., this year, according to the Catholic League, which tracks Nativity vandalism.

from the Boston Globe

Shoppin’ Fool

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The Dowbrigade is a sucker for a bargain. On rare occasions this means we stumble onto a true, historic bargain. Even a blind pig comes up with a truffle now and again. However, much more often we wind up being taken for a sucker. Case in point.

Last week we were loitering in the Sports Authority store in the Assembly Square Mall in Somerville, a recently recycled tract of asphalt along the Mystic River currently in legal limbo while local residents resist another Viking Invasion in the form of a Big Box Ikea Superstore planned to anchor a megacomplex including a residential village with its own T stop. Meanwhile a rundown K-Mart, a Staples and a Christmas Tree Shop hold down the fort.

Norma Yvonne was in the K-Mart looking for something for someone else. Like out mother, Norma finished her own Christmas shopping months ago, and is currently acting as a shopping consultant for myriad friends and extended family members. So there we were, not looking for anything in particular, but somehow we gravitated to the tennis section.

Now as an avid if mediocre tennis buff (anything but), we are always on the lookout for a good deal on a new racquet. We usually head out as soon as the new, cutting edge, high tech models hit the stores. This is when the slash prices on last year’s Ultra Latest Cutting Edge models to make room for the new stuff. Simply setting back the old internal clock a year we can revel in he latest technology at about 60% off.

Sometimes more. On this particular occasion, we were just glancing through the racquets when we spied, buried under a stack of Hyper Hammers, a few Head Racquets with an attractive gun-metal gray body and an oversized head. Now, any serious tennis player will tell you never to choose a racquet for its color scheme, but we never said we were serious. Any way, the racquet had a list price of $229, but was part of a Big Two-Day Sale, at the ridiculously sick price of $79.00!

And it seemed particularly well-suited to our game. According to the little booklet hanging from the racquets handle, "A lively frame with excellent torsional stability, the Head Titanium Ti S6 will perform best in the hands of players with compact to medium stroke styles seeking an extra large sweetspot (115 head size) that blends a nice balance of power tempered with an open string pattern; ideal for spin artists with an all court game. "

We instantly recognized ourself in that description.

But the clincher was that we had in our possession, in our wallet, at that moment, a coupon we had clipped from the Boston Globe that morning, completely coincidentally, for an additional $10 off of any item priced more than $50 at none other than the Sports Authority! Fate. Karma. Kismet. I was helpless.

The word that best describes the experience though is serendipity – the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Inter-inguistic digression – we have been looking for the closest Spanish equivalent to serendipity for weeks, have looked in every Spanish-English dictionary in Norma’s library, on line or in the Harvard Coop – and nada. Anybody know how to say "Serendipity" in Spanish?

At any rate, we bought the dam racquet, and yesterday finally got a chance to try it out, down by the Riverside, with the Just Don’t Suck Tennis Club, a bunch of over-the-hill geezers who wack it around every weekend morning there isn’t snow on the public courts down by the River Charles. In this league a new racquet is a big deal, althogh none of us harbor illusions that a new ax is going to resuscitate what passes for our game.

And yesterday, our flashy, gun-metal gray racquet couldn’t hit squat! Every shot wen off at an extreme, seemingly random angle. We were making contact (hard not to with the cartoonist oversized head) but had absolutely no clue as to where the ball would wind up when we did. We couldn’t hit a serve, or a volley, or a lob, or a spin or a slice or a drop shot. Usually at least ONE of those is working.

As the morning wore on, we began to look more closely at our new weapon, and we began to notice some strange things. For one, it was "top-heavy", rather than symmetrically oval, as most modern tennis racquets are. That is, the head bulged out at the top, like a squash racquet; the aforementioned extra large sweet spot. And the arrangement of the strings was weird – they weren’t in a parallel grid; rather, they arced out from the center bottom like rays from a focus somewhere near the hea of the handle.

No wonder we couldn’t hit anything. No wonder it had been marked down to less than a third of list. No wonder we are know as a shopping fool.

We played two sets with out new racquet, and lost them both. Then, to salvage some self-respect and to test out the Prime Directive, we switched back to the old racquet for a final set – and won. We had not violated the Prime. We didn’t suck – the new racquet sucked!

When we swallowed our pride and told the sorry tale to Norma Yvonne she replied, as she is wont to do, with a Spanish proverb. In this case, "Lo barato sale caro". Rough translation – cheap stuff ends up being expensive.

One Man’s Wurst…

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BOSTON — A Boston University grad is raising some hackles with his new book, "The Absolute Worst Places To Live in America," which names Fitchburg, Mass., and Boston’s Allston neighborhood as among the worst.

Dave Gilmartin, 30, originally hails from New Jersey, which he said helped qualify him to rate crummy cities, according to the Boston Herald. He said he also lived on both Glenville and Pratt streets in Allston while enrolled as a BU student.

Gilmartin listed "faux Irish pubs, garbage and vomiting in the shrubbery" as some of the Allston neighborhood’s vices.

from the Boston Channel

And we always considered those Allston Irish Pubs with the bushes out front to be part of the old Allston-Brighton charm. And let’s nor forget the junk-furniture recycling stores, the colorful local characters living out of stolen shopping carts, and the leftover dregs of the day-labor market left over to wallow and dessicate on curbs and streetcorners all day….

Black Helicopters Back in Boston

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So, yesterday,
we were with our son Gabriel on a US Naval Base, waiting
in line to go through a rather strenuous security check, when another unmarked
black helicopter flew overhead, low and tilted forward, like an angry wasp, meaning business. Quickly and somewhat surreptioously
we whipped out our camera and snuck a shot between the tangled rigging
of the mizzenmast.

Of course, it was not the first time we had seen the infamous and
ubiquitous "Black Helicopters" but it was the first time we had the
means and presence of mind to catch them on film. Unfortunately, we
are not at liberty to divulge what we were doing on a US Naval Base
yesterday, as doing so would violate a blood oath and involve our unmentionables.
Suffice it to say, our mission was accomplished.

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