Pointing to the Sky

August 2, 2019

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In which we meet Amy, half-hearted barkeeper at The Lug Nut bar

Weirs Beach, NH, August 2005.

“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” 

That’s the joke Amy tells when someone asks for her story at work. It happens plenty–there’s always someone lingering at the bar just long enough for things to head in that direction. Sometimes, when inspired, these barflies talk to Amy, other times to each other, with lots of nodding and shaking of heads, maybe a hug at the end. It’s almost always triggered by Amy’s iPod, hooked up to the sound system whenever she’s working. 

When that shuffle goes to just the right song, and the bar isn’t too busy, somebody always gets to talking. Amy hears stories every night–some sad, some ridiculous, some so embellished she has to bite her tongue instead of blurt out, “Yeah, right,” before she busts out laughing.

One story pops into Amy’s head fairly regularly, most likely triggered by the blue light of Jeopardy! every night at 7:30. 

This guy, about three years ago, just burst into tears at the bar when he heard Hootie & the Blowfish–that one Hootie song about crying. You know it. Then he launched into such a tangled story of regret that he got Amy crying too, both of them wiping their noses with little square bar napkins overwhelmed at the shame of it all. 

downloadAmy had never seen this kind of reaction from a Hootie song. She’d never seen a reaction this strong ever in the bar, other than the occasional fight of course. So she had to ask him why.

The story he told Amy that night was about high school–a lot of stories Amy hears at the bar have to do with high school–and how his mom was dying, actually in hospice and everything–and his dad told him he had to drive home early from his two-week soccer camp. 

“I took the long way. I stopped for ice cream. I stopped for gas but I didn’t need it,” he said, and this cute twenty-something guy with his sun-streaked hair and faded Pink Floyd shirt that Amy’s pretty sure she saw at Walmart the week before started crying again. He was good-looking in that rumpled and needy way twenty-something guys sometimes have, which always triggers Amy’s mothering instinct. 

It was hard for her to stand there and watch him go to pieces, so Amy put her hand on his shoulder and patted him gently, looking over at Jimmy Belvedere sitting two stools away, a sweet old regular who’s been going to the Lug Nut since way before Amy started. He could see what was coming, so he stood up, raised his eyebrows at Amy along with his mug, then skedaddled to a hightop. 

The guy wiped his face and dried his hands by running them through his hair, talking the whole time. 

“I stopped at the beach too,” he said. “I didn’t even get out of my car, right? It was a beachviewhundred degrees in that car! No AC!” 

He said “No AC!” with the kind of drama that’s usually reserved for greater challenges, but of course this was really about his mom, and Amy got that he was in the thick of it. She took her hand off his shoulder, but then he put his hand over hers on the bar. It seemed like he just wanted to emphasize the importance of what he was saying, but Amy wasn’t sure. She worried she might need to cut him off.

“A hundred degrees and I sat there sweating buckets,” he said, “like if I was gonna be such a pussy as to dawdle going home, I should at least make myself suffer, right?” 

Amy gently pulled her hand away and made for the bar rag, like she would have let him keep his hand over hers, but, you know, she had a job to do. He didn’t seem to notice, and she wondered then if dawdle is a word guys from Rhode Island use a lot. She knew he was from Rhode Island because she carded him. He was a twenty-something guy from some unpronounceable little Rhode Island town, sitting in a bar a long way from home crying into his beer. She should have known better than to ask for his story, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Lost boys were always drawn to Amy. 

He blew his nose with the napkin he pulled from beneath his beer, looked at it in his hand for a second, then stuffed it into his pocket. This made Amy grateful, because she really didn’t want to touch it, but this also made her even more sad because it’s so darn pathetic. 

That’s the worst part of sadness. There’s no two ways about it. It is so incredibly pathetic to shove a snot-nosed bar napkin into your pocket after crying over your poor, dead mom with a woman who’s not old quite old enough to be your mom, but who’s definitely a little older. 

It didn’t help that Amy was also wearing a snug low-cut Lug Nut shirt that read “Let Me Tighten That Nut!” across her breasts, and maybe also that she had, still has, a curly mess of brown hair, which, frankly, isn’t always her greatest asset, but can sometimes make her seem younger than she is.

quickandeasyAmy is currently in that weird gray area between sexy and motherly that’s confusing for guys in their twenties–and guys in their thirties, too, for that matter–especially after a few too many Bud Lights and a well-timed Hootie & the Blowfish song. 

The good thing is this gets her just as many tips as the young little cocktail waitresses who only work weekends and wear short shorts because their legs aren’t a tangled mess of varicose veins thanks to decades spent in a job standing up. 

She doesn’t feel threatened a bit by their giggles and their shiny, straightened hair falling like planks down their backs. She does just as well as they do, and sometimes even better, which she knows because if she doesn’t watch them closely, they short her when it comes time to tip out. That’s what girls that age do. Amy knows as well as anyone.

Amy put a new napkin under the guy’s beer and took one for herself because she kind of knew what was coming. Amy cries pretty easy. 

“So I just sat there in the hundred degree car, with Hootie on the CD player, right?” he said. “Every time this song ended, every time,” he said, “I went click! And played it again. That song was the only song I listened to. For hours.”

As he talked, he pointed up to the TV with emphasis, a TV that wasn’t playing Hootie & the Blowfish of course, but Jeopardy!. But the sound system wasn’t playing Hootie anymore either, it was playing Jim Croce, who also wrote a lot of sad songs, and on top of that died way too young. 

jeopardyAmy wondered then, as she often does, if her iPod got depressed at the same time she did, like it’s in rhythm with her cycle. Then she looked at the guy again and nodded, because she got that he was actually pointing at the Hootie song, and he got that she got it, and that’s when they both started crying, even though the song shuffled through long ago. 

If you don’t spend a lot of time in bars like the Lug Nut, or at loud dinner parties, or driving cross country with friends, you might not know this, but people are always pointing at songs, even though there’s nothing really to point at.

Sometimes, if a stereo system is visible, people point to the stereo, but since no one plays records anymore, and there’s no album cover to look at, they’re just pointing to the stereo itself. In a car, they might point to the stereo too, but again, they’re really just pointing at nothing. 

Amy thinks it’s better having nothing to point at, because when there’s nothing to point at like a radio or TV, people naturally point up. Or sometimes they point up and look up as they launch into the story of why they love the song that’s playing. When people point up, it’s as if the song is everywhere in the air around us, and that makes Amy happy. 

250px-OrtizpointIt’s like when Big Papi points up after he hits a homer and tosses his bat like he’s flicking a toothpick, sauntering around the bases because he’s got all the time in the world. In truth, the whole bar lightens up when Big Papi hits a homer and points heavenward, and not just because he’s won another walk-off for the Red Sox, on top of winning the whole World Series shebang just the year before. 

The guys at the Lug Nut all love Big Papi because he’s a little bit like them–a little overweight and can’t run very fast–the big difference being that Big Papi also has a great job, a bunch of money, and a blonde wife named Tiffany. The fact that his slugging percentage is over .600 and his job is playing for World Series Champs Boston Red Sox could make a slight difference in how he’s viewed by blonde women named Tiffany versus these guys, but anyway. Big Papi gives hope to the hopeless. 

Anyway, when a song stirs up that same reaction–whether it’s pushing that button to make you smile or pushing the button to send you down sad, old memory lane–it’s powerful stuff. And when this happens in the bar, with Amy’s iPod playing, she’s often the best person to talk to if only because it’s her iPod.

What’s really strange about the story Amy heard in the bar that night is she doesn’t remember how it ended. She only remembers what happened when he stopped talking.

He looked straight at her like strangers hardly ever do, like a man might look at you when you stop for a second in the middle of making love to him. You know the second I’m talking about. He’s holding you by the shoulders and he just looks at you, and even though you’re searching his eyes for some kind of promise that this won’t all go horribly wrong, all you see in his eyes is apology, because that train has left the station. There’s nothing to be sorry about, because he has as little power as you do to stop all the bad things that inevitably happen to people like you. So you bury your head into his neck and squeeze him with your whole body, holding on for however many minutes you have left. 

It quickly became too much, so they turned to take in Double Jeopardy, wordlessly watching until they somehow started whispering the same answers together without even looking at each other, Amy just a tiny bit pleased with how well they both did. 

But how can she not remember how his story ended? Not remember when his mom actually died? Before or after he got home from camp? Maybe a long time after he got home? It’s weird to Amy that she doesn’t remember, but she’s also glad. 

The story is sad enough, no matter what happened, but it definitely would be a lot worse if his mom died as he was driving home, that very same day. Amy prefers not remembering at all to remembering that

It only got awkward that night when he hugged Amy across the bar, after Jeopardy! ended and just before he walked out the door. Hugging across the bar happens a lot to Amy. Some people just seem to think she needs hugging, and other times Amy knows it’s the heady combo of too many Bud Lights and her low-cut strangely suggestive T-shirt, but this was different. Thankfully, he came to the Lug Nut all the way from Rhode Island, one night only, and Amy never saw him again. 

barmanEven without a song to get them going, guys will still ask Amy for her story when she’s working behind the bar, including the ones who actually know her, including the ones she went to high school with who should know her and her story as well as anyone. Either way, townie or tourist, most appreciate Amy’s snappy answer about only having bad luck, however much they pretend differently. 

What these men really want is to tell Amy their story, and that is completely fine with her. Amy is a bartender. It’s a total cliche, but if you don’t want to hear people’s stories, if it’s too much on nights when the stories are bad, or nasty, or even downright offensive, you probably won’t last long as a bartender. Amy has heard some of the dullest stories ever, stories so dull she’s tempted to pour herself a shot of Jack just to get through them, and she’s heard more than her share of stupid or tragic stories, but more often she hears stories that are sweet, serendipitous, or sad, often a combination of all three. 

There was a time Amy was less judicious, a time she was compelled to answer every question with complete honesty, even one as vague as “What’s your story?” She didn’t know how to lie back then, or how to hide the truth either for that matter, but that was long ago. 

There’s really only one person, one man, Amy has told absolutely everything to. Up to a point anyway, because after that point Nick was actually in her story and knows exactly what went down. Although Nick would probably interrupt to say it’s not Amy’s story at all, but his, at least until she screwed it all up.  

Now Amy only shares her deepest, most innermost thoughts with Fanbelt the cat, and she steers clear of men, even if her friends want her to sign up for online dating or, God forbid, go on an actual blind date with some person whose only real qualification is being single, a guy, and around her age.

inside bar.jpgAmy jokes with her friends she doesn’t need help because she works at the Lug Nut, where it is always raining men. True, Amy has a soft heart for most of the guys at the Lug Nut, but she’d never go home with a single one of them.  

It’s not necessarily because they’ve been around the block a few too many times, which they have, or that they’re a little rough around the edges, which they are. They’re decent guys who, for the most part, work harder than plenty of other guys and have little to show for it besides a bad back and a titanium hip or two. Some are assholes when they get drunk, but most of the time they just get louder and flirt with her in a way they never would sober. 

If Amy really wanted, she could easily snag a middle-aged guy with a Harley in the garage and a couple of kids who live with the ex, and he would kiss the ground she walked on just for sharing his bed and washing his underwear. With a little work, she might even snag one of the guys who really do have a little money and no kids with an ex, and he might just want her to quit her job and stay home. Maybe he’d even want a kid or two himself. After all, she’s not a hundred, just thirty-four. 

Thinking about that makes Amy feel more lonely though. And when she goes down that road, her own iPod shuffle turns on her as well. “Angel from Montgomery” starts playing, or “Fire and Rain,” or even “Glitter in the Air” by Pink–that one can get her even when she’s in a good mood. She thinks maybe she should get those songs off her iPod, because she gets this weird feeling like her needle is suddenly pointing to empty and she never noticed. She is out of gas on the side of the highway, all by herself, no station in sight. 

She doesn’t know what the feeling means, so she ignores it, whispering “If I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” though inside she hopes she’s very wrong.

Amy had a lot of bad luck long ago. In fact a lot of people would say she’s had more than her share, though others might claim it wasn’t bad luck at all but bad choices. One ridiculously bad choice after another. 

After all, how could Amy not have known about the setup from the get-go? She of all people?

But just like cliches are cliches because they’re so often true, you couldn’t possibly understand why Amy did what she did and chose who she chose unless you were there watching everything unfold and implode after Nick got found out. 

If you’ve never felt what it’s like to be under the spell of someone like Nick, drawn to his electric glow, you couldn’t understand. Nick had a way of laying out possibilities like a jeweler might toss a handful of diamonds onto a velvet cloth, telling you to pick whichever one you want.

nhA long time ago, Nick made Amy believe she would live a life more remarkable than she ever could imagine, far away and above her life in little Laconia, New Hampshire. Worse, he also made her believe, for a short time at least, that she deserved a life that remarkable. She was entitled.

Think about what you would say or do if someone showed that kind of faith in you. Think about how far you might go in convincing yourself that what you were doing was right.

To be continued . . .

Copyright by Kate Flaherty 2019

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Warehouse Mardi Gras

March 9, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans about a minute before Mardi Gras hit its Fat Tuesday height. Even better, I wrangled my way into a few warehouse studios thanks to my friend Reynard, an artist whose fulltime gig is painting parade floats.

Anyone unfamiliar with Mardi Gras in New Orleans might not realize Mardi Gras goes way beyond just Fat Tuesday. Carnival in New Orleans begins as soon as the new year turns, and there seems no end to the parade of parades. The weekend before and up through Fat Tuesday, you can see up to six parades a day, and Fat Tuesday alone has eleven parades going on all day long across the city.0

Catholics might begin their Lenten season of fasting, self-denial, and prayer on Ash Wednesday, but in New Orleans the parades continue. On St. Patrick’s Day, float riders have been known to toss raw cabbages instead of beads, and on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, the American Italian Marching Club holds their parade in the French Quarter. The Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day is “Super Sunday,” because it’s the day the famous Mardi Gras Indians emerge Uptown to parade and display their incredibly ornate costumes.

So if you don’t mind paint by the gallon and a canvas the size of an 18-wheeler, you too could make art every day, then have your creation viewed by thousands for one bright, shining moment. Think big.

Reynard showed me floats for two parades, one playful, one classic. First was Iris, the first female Krewe, dating back to 1917. Their theme this year was “Iris Through a Child’s Eyes.” Yep, you’ll recognize some of these folks . . .

Next was the remarkable collection of floats from the Krewe of Hermes, an all-male Krewe that began in the midst of the Depression. Hermes holds the distinction of having the first-ever parade with neon lights in 1938 and being the oldest continuous night parading krewe in Carnival. Hermes was also one of the first krewes to parade following Hurricane Katrina; their 2006 parade drew record crowds.

The Krewe of Hermes has a reputation for parading floats with the highest level of craftsmanship and detail. The handcrafted and painted flowers, the statuesque props, and the gold leaf create stunning tableaus one after another. This year’s theme? The Court Music of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, with a little art deco styling thrown in for good measure.

I was back in NH before Hermes hit the streets, but thanks to nola.com and the Times-Picayune, I could experience a little bit of the parade online. There was a mystery to seeing the floats waiting in the warehouse for their one night, and a delight to get a close look without getting hip-checked by bead enthusiasts, but I am sorry I missed seeing their one night of glory on the streets. Maybe next year. . .

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On Air Mix Tape

January 24, 2019

download-7First, we’ll get a little business out of the way. If you’re reading this and it’s still January of 2019, you’re in luck. A few weeks ago, my brother Kevin and I went to my favorite radio station, WUMB, and recorded an hour-long radio show, “Guest Mix,” that will air this Saturday, January 26 at 1 p.m. If you’re so inclined, please listen! We promise a magical mystery tour that will not disappoint. . .

Kevin would insist on saying the song choices are mine (he does have a reputation to protect), but he does have to acknowledge he is the reason I love and listen to radio in the first place. In middle school, Kevin was the one who figured out how to connect our TV antenna to the radio so we could listen to the infamous Charles Laquidara on Boston’s WBCN and Dr. Demento on Portland’s WBLM even though we lived in the New Hampshire hinterlands.

 

Kev also made mixed tapes with clips from these radio shows plus tracks from his collection of Columbia House and RCA Record club albums, and he’d play them on the bus for away basketball games where it seemed universally accepted by all of us he was in charge of the entertainment. When Kevin became a DJ in college, I followed him into the broadcast booth, literally paging through the list of what he’d played to get ideas of how to set up my own show the following day.

 

But other than music and a mutual love for our mom’s mac and cheese, Kevin and I have never had a whole lot in common. We chose different paths almost from the beginning, and I think even we are a little surprised we live only a couple hours rather than a few thousand miles away from each other now.

 

But music continues to connect us, whether we’re talking about what’s new or getting nostalgic for what’s not. Kevin and I still listen to radio too, though his favorite station is WERS from Emerson College, and mine is UMass Boston’s WUMB, the station where our show will air.

 

So thanks to WUMB, especially DJ and musician Brendan Hogan who was a great tour guide for this trip. While I won’t divulge the playlist (you need to tune in for that), you can have an idea of what we chose from the breadcrumb trail of album covers I’ve scattered throughout the post. I encourage guesses for the tracks we played!

And if you haven’t listened to WUMB (or Kev’s favorite WERS for that matter), check them out. There is still great radio even without a satellite feed, and if you’re worried about your smart speaker listening in, just know Big Brother might learn a thing or two by getting an earful of Steve Earle, Richie Havens, Ani DiFranco, Emmylou Harris, and all the other rabble rousers always on the airwaves of the stations that still matter.

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Kev and me with Brendan Hogan. If I look slightly overwhelmed, it’s because I was thinking of all the amazing musicians that have played in this very studio. Jayhawks, Richard Thompson, Alison Krauss, and more. Truly hallowed ground!

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It’s a collective, it’s an installation, it’s a bowling alley repurposed into a a multisensory museum that’s truly for all ages. . . it’s Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

 

 

 

I visited with three writer/artist pals, Sherrie Flick, Rick Schweikert, and Sandy Yannone. Sherrie, Sandy, Rick, and I are lucky enough to calculate our friendship in decades instead of years, and I think we’d all agree that we’ve been fully engaged in the artist hustle for even longer than that.

downloadWe hustle for publication, we hustle for freelance gigs, we hustle for time and space and energy, in large part because we, like so many artists, have to be our own patrons. Teaching, bartending, real estate, retail, you name it, we’ve done it, we do it, and we’ll keep on doing it until or unless we find a better way.

After visiting Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, I think they may have found that better way. The installation itself is remarkable enough–the Meow Wolf collective created a narrative like none I’ve ever experienced before. The current installation, House of Eternal Return, is a remarkable room-by-room mystery, a visual, musical, and electronic narrative that delights and overwhelms.

 

 

 

I was blown away by the imagination and invention, but I was also blown away by the fact that Meow Wolf is making significant money from their art AND they’re also expanding–to Denver, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. I thought, why not bring some of that magic to Pittsburgh, Olympia, and Laconia, NH?

 

 

 

I think of the empty storefronts in my New Hampshire community, and the work so many are doing to revitalize downtown Laconia; there’s a bike path, a performance venue, great little restaurants, a supercool coffee shop, and a historic theater that’s getting an overdue makeover, but there’s still so much to do. Maybe now’s the time for Laconia to have its own immersive, educational, thought-provoking art space?

 

 

 

I leave you with this inspiring statement (manifesto?) from the Meow Wolf website, as well as the trailer for the Meow Wolf documentary, supported in part by an artist who no longer needs a patron, the amazing and generous George R. R. Martin:

Meow Wolf firmly believes that accomplished artists must be compensated on an equal level with other skilled, in-demand professionals, and that successful businesses must give back to — and participate energetically in — their communities. We provide financial assistance, expertise, and other forms of active support, and we are excited to support innovative, community-focused art and social projects. Meow Wolf comes out of a dumpster-diving, DIY past, and we want to help emerging artists and art communities around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recycled Record Art

November 24, 2018

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If you are just now discovering that I love both music and record art, pleased to meet you! My name is Kate Flaherty. . . . Seriously, most of you know I have been collecting records ever since I have been buying records, way back when I was in the single digits. I am most enamored of the humble 45  not just for its nostalgic import, but also for the delightful decorative surprise it can add to almost any aesthetic. I initially created this post to sell the records, and most have been re-homed or re-hung, but I still love the pics!

 

 

 

STRAND #1: Love ‘em or leave ‘em classics 

“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” Meat LoafIMG_2612

“You Give Love a Bad Name,” Bon Jovi

“Urgent,” Foreigner

“Heartache Tonight,” Eagles

“White Room,” Cream

“Start Me Up,” Rolling Stones

“Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” Motley Crue

“Can’t Stand It No More,” Peter Frampton

“Jeopardy,” Greg Kihn Band

 

STRAND #2: ‘80s Post Punk New Wave

“If You Leave,” Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark

“White Wedding,” Billy Idol

“House We Used to Live In,” SmithereensIMG_2605

“Poison Arrow,” ABC

“Saved by Zero,” The Fixx

“Every Breath You Take,” The Police

“White Punks on Dope,” The Tubes

“Dreaming,” Blondie

“Beds Are Burning,” Midnight Oil

 

STRAND #3: Kick-ass Chicks

“Harper Valley PTA,” Jeannie C. Riley

“Mr. Sandman,” Chordettes

“Shop Around,” Captain & Tennille

“The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva

“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Roberta Flack

“Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” Petula Clark

“Rambler Gambler,” Linda Ronstadt

“Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” Paper Lace

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” Dusty Springfield

 

STRAND #4: AM Radio Oldies

“My Little Town,” Simon & Garfunkel

“Hurdy Gurdy Man,” DonovanIMG_2609

“Happy Jack,” The Who

“Face in the Crowd,” Little River Band

“Your Song,” Elton John

“Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Vanilla Fudge

“No Time,” Guess Who

“Summer in the City,” Lovin’ Spoonful

“While You See a Chance,” Steve Winwood

 

STRAND #5: I Want My MTV

“Cars” Gary Numan

“Don’t You Want Me,” Human League

“Need You Tonight,” INXS

“Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Joe Jackson

“Best Friend’s Girl,” The CarsIMG_2600.jpg

“Can’t Stand Losing You,” The Police

“Get it On,” Power Station

“Relax,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“One Thing Leads to Another,” The Fixx

 

STRAND #6: Ladies of the ‘80s

“Tide is High,” Blondie

“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Stevie Nicks w/Tom Petty

“Morning Train,” Sheena EastonIMG_2598

“Magic Man,” Heart

“Voices Carry,” Til Tuesday

“Mickey,” Toni Basil

“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Bonnie Tyler

“Nadia’s Theme (theme to Young and the Restless)

“Xanadu” Olivia Newton-John w/ ELO (this 45 has a label that is slightly water stained–see pic)IMG_2621

 

STRAND #7: Cheez-tastic

“Missing You,” John Waite

“Fernando,” ABBA

“Babe,” STYX

“Sister Christian,” Night Ranger

“Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie Wonder

“Making Love (out of nothing at all),” Air Supply — don’t you sometimes get nostalgic for those song titles with more song titles in parentheses?IMG_2599.jpg

“Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” Milli Vanilli

“Soldier of Love,” Billy Burnette

“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Hall & Oates

 

STRAND #8: I Love the Oldies, Pt 2

“Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry (looks cool but not valuable–a 1974 reprint on Chess Records)

“Wild Thing,” The Troggs

“If Loving You is Wrong (I don’t wanna be right),” Luther Vandross

“Summer in the City,” Lovin’ Spoonful

“Dead Man’s Curve,” Jan & Dean

“Stoned Soul Picnic,” 5th DimensionIMG_2597

“Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” The Heywoods

“I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James & The Shondelles

“Get Together,” Youngbloods

*Note: If you should want Strand #8 to go with Strands #1 and/or #3, I know there are duplicates. However, in this case I do have some similar stock and WILL substitute for the duplicates if you like!

 

Please message me or comment below if you have questions or requests! I will end with a 45 I don’t have, but I wish I did! Stephen Read brought this in to play during “break time” in grade 3 or 4 probably. Blew my mind, Steve.

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Lake Winnipesaukee or the Gulf of Finland? Hint: there is a noticeable lack of mountains in the background as well as boaters ignoring the no wake zone.

Friends and I sometimes joke that we don’t always see the point in traveling, because we’re lucky enough to live in New Hampshire. We have lakes and mountains, summer and winter sports, good food, good beer, and good music. Why go anywhere else? And yet I am thrilled to be here in Finland–why? I have to admit it might have something to do with feeling as though I’ve found New Hampshire’s soulmate, particularly now that I’ve headed to the north country of Rovaniemi, Lapland.

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Yep, plenty of lumber in Lapland (northern Finland), but this is spruce, not pine.

But it’s not just a mutual affection for hiking and hard rock, sensible footwear and plaid. It’s also a shared self-deprecating and somewhat dark worldview that comes from living in a land where winter all too often overstays its welcome.

For example, one of my favorite new Finnish words I learned from one of my favorite new Finnish blogs is morkkis or moral hangover. Its the feeling you have when something you did the night before makes you so embarrassed you regret your whole existence. There’s also a terrific Finnish cartoonist, Matti, who’s created a series of Finnish Nightmares, which usually involve such horrors as salespeople who insist on asking if you need help or strangers who smile at you and try to make small talk in an elevator. These are my people.

Below are just a few other significant ways I’ve found Finland so simpatico with New Hampshire. . .

Brake for moose! We revere and respect our wildlife even when they stop traffic. I must say reindeer are much less skittish (or more foolish?) than white-tailed deer, perhaps because they’re herding animals maintained by the Sami people and so less afraid of humans. On a one-hour trip in the north country, you can expect reindeer to block the road at least 3-4 times, and they are not in a hurry to move. In NH we flash our brights to warn drivers there are cops ahead–here, it’s the sign for reindeer in the road.

We love our dogs! Dogs are everywhere here, big and little. A few more corgis and dachshunds than black labs, but LOTS of huskies, plus some beautiful shepherd varieties that are unique to the Nordics. One big difference? Unlike America, dogs here are welcome in more places, like cafes, shopping malls, and public transportation. Oh, to be a dog in Finland.

We also love motorcycles, even though you can’t drive them most of the year, four-wheelers (which are street-legal in Finland!), berry picking, fishing, and drinking a little more than we should. Why haven’t we gotten together sooner? Why aren’t there direct flights from Manchester to Helsinki? It’s never too late . . .

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Not a single to-go cup . . .

After a few days walking the streets of Helsinki, I began noticing something strange . . . whether people are walking, driving, or taking public transportation, there is a conspicuous lack of travel mugs, to-go cups, and those huge Dunkin’s iced coffees. I saw a water bottle here and there, and more than a few cans of beer or cider consumption in the parks (it is legal after all), but no coffee.

IMG_1106Yet the coffee here is some of the best I’ve had; plus, Finland leads the world in coffee consumption per capita; some studies claim the average Finn drinks up to a liter and a half a day. That’s a staggering 50 ounces, an amount made more astounding since they’re not consuming it on the go. I set out to determine how, where, and why the Finns manage to drink so much.

  1. Prohibition. When Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917 (Happy 100th Birthday Free Finland!), the new government wanted freedom not just from Russian rule, but also Russian vodka. Alcohol was banned, and while the country dealt with a similar period of lawlessness like America did during almost the same time, prohibition also gave rise to coffee culture where guests were treated to coffee rather than booze or beer.
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    Even giraffes at the Zoological Institute of Helsinki drink coffee.

    Friends in High Places. Rumor has it that Urho Kekkonen, Finland’s president from 1956-1982 (yes, that is ridiculously long to be “president,” but that’s a topic for another time), pushed legislation through regulating that coffee beans be more lightly roasted, and thus less bitter than the dark-roasted Russian beans Finns had been forced to drink thus far. Even Henry Kissinger mentions Kekkonen’s love for coffee in his memoirs, while also claiming Brezhnev hated the stuff. Cold War or Coffee War?

  3. Water. Finland is renowned for terrific water. There are even signs in public bathrooms letting you know it’s okay to drink the tap water; it’s that good. Anyone who makes coffee on their own knows how vital it is to begin with good water.
  4. Treats. As coffee became part of the fabric of Finnish life, kahvi ja pulla (coffee and a bun) became a standard in the workplace, when hosting guests at home, and now in the cafe. Pastries I’ve tried thus far are the korvapuusti, which is a tidy little cinnamon bun, and the mustikkapiirakka (yes, I just pointed when I requested that one in the cafe), which is basically a blueberry kolache or danish. Yum.
  5. Cafés Instead of Take Aways. There are even more cafés within walking distance than there are record shops, and people linger with their coffee instead of just refueling on the run. While it might have more to do with summertime–maybe in winter everyone carries a to-go mug for warming the fingers as well as the belly–I prefer to think it has more to do with taking the time to enjoy a cup (or 10) and relaxing before the caffeine kicks in.

So I’ve determined Finns don’t need travel mugs because they prefer savoring a drink they’ve spent more than a century perfecting. . . and I also have determined that I both endorse and hope to emulate their efforts. Kippis!

IMG_1139The entryway to our apartment in Helsinki has a plaque to the left of the door, which reads:

Blueslengenda Eddie Boyd

asui ässä talossa

vuosina 1971-1994

(Blues legend Eddie Boyd lived in this house from 1971-1994)

At first I confused Boyd in my head with Eddie Floyd, who sang one of my favorite soul tunes from the sixties, “Big Bird,” but Eddie Boyd was a Mississippi bluesman signed with the famous Chicago Chess Records who played with Chess greats Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, and who later toured with Waters, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and the early, more bluesy, incarnation of Fleetwood Mac (thanks YouTube and Wiki).

downloadWhy move to Finland? Any American who reveres the blues knows that however dedicated we are to this music, Europeans have proven more dedicated, particularly with their wallets, and particularly when it comes to African-American blues artists. Boyd’s move to Finland in 1971 was in part financial—he could make a living as an artist—but he also said he moved to escape the racism of America. A shameful truth. And while there is audio of Boyd playing his hit, most YouTube versions are from Eric Clapton, John Mayer, et al.

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I admit to feeling a collective guilt that Boyd had to move to Finland for respect and income, but I also feel staying where he lived was an auspicious beginning to the trip, reinforced by the fun and fantastic music I’ve heard from the apartment window since we arrived. There are two charming and different bars within earshot, and they both represent just some of the musical delights Finland has to offer.

The first is Tenho, a low-key and classy club, and second is Tennka, a dive karaoke bar. Both are directly across the street from the apartment, separated only by an Alko shop, the state-owned liquor store. This means there’s almost always activity inside and also outside, with people openly drinking from pints of vodka or very large cans of beer (here they’re called long drinks instead of tall boys).

The first night, I heard the most amazing music coming from Tenho. I’d seen the band unloading their gear from a taxi the afternoon we arrived and I was intrigued. Keyboard, drums, trumpet, gargantuan bass. What were they up to? Unable to sleep, I was transfixed by the Chet Baker infused jazz that came through my window later that night. The horn was so amazing, I looked them up the next day. Kudos to trumpeter Mikko Karjalainen and the Gunu Jazz Quartet.

IMG_1121The next night? Classic rock karaoke from Tennka, where I listened from my window and played name that tune to a group of guys singing at the top of their lungs. Karaoke is super popular in Finland, not just in bars throughout the country, but even some libraries as well.  From across the street I could easily make out an eclectic set list: “Born To Be Wild,” “Let The Sun Shine In,” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” The Finns have a reputation for being even more reserved than us folks from New Hampshire, and that’s definitely been my experience thus far, but just like the Northeast, you give us a beer or three and some good tunes and we can let loose.

But it’s not just the sing-a-long that’s huge here–Helsinki really takes music to the next level. Just within a few blocks of the apartment I’ve come across no less than five used record and CD shops, two large shops selling instruments and sheet music, and one shop that specializes in custom-built amplifiers.

However, the most terrific music discovery I made came from TV; the apartment has the Finnish version of basic cable, which basically means there’s a lot of American and British and Finnish reality TV, Scandinavian crime shows, and then a weird hodgepodge of old movies, music, and documentaries. After a show that I’m pretty sure was about Finnish furniture design, then a documentary on British band The Jam, I came across an open-air concert of the Ricky-Tick Big Band, a Finnish group that plays a crazy wonderful mix of hip-hop jazz that completely took me by storm. Holy Moly these guys are fun. I think Eddie Boyd (and for that matter Eddie Floyd) would approve.

IMG_1036Why Finland? Many friends asked this question when I shared where Emi and I would be for a large part of our summer. Frankly, as soon as I arrived, I only wish I’d thought to come sooner! Finland is fantastic, for reasons I hope this, and future dispatches, will delve into more fully.

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First, Emi is studying linguistics at UNH; through her I have glimpsed the marvelous way that languages overlap and evolve. Second, while Emi has formally studied French, German, and Japanese, she also has long been interested in the culture and languages of Scandinavian and Nordic countries; without me, Em has traveled to Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. When Emi said she wanted to travel to Finland, in part to attend Worldcon, the 75th World Science Fiction convention, I decided this time I would tag along.

downloadMany of you are probably familiar with Comic-Con International, held every year in San Diego, best known as the place where rabid fans can geek out to the creators, actors, and artists who produce the multimedia starring whichever comic book characters they most connect with. Costumes are encouraged.

images-2Worldcon is similar, and there’s a lot of overlap, but the focus is intended to be on the art forms–film, graphic novels, literature, games (both board and computer)–that fall under the science fiction/fantasy umbrella. Yeah, that covers a LOT. Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the cheesetastic Supernatural, plus Tolkien, Le Guin, L’Engle,  . . . the offerings are wonderfully endless. And yes, costumes are encouraged.

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A Finnish genderbent Doctor Who – her scarf took a month to make.

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A group cosplay of the webcomic Scandinavia and the World, which anthropomorphizes the world’s nations.

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Two blacksmiths from Oulu, Finland showcase their weapons. After hours, the forge is used to barbecue ribs.

Having only been to literature conferences, most of which were somewhat dry and uptight (no costumes because we take ourselves oh, so seriously), I have loved going with Emi and wandering around the venue with people who don’t just read these books and watch these shows, they shamelessly devour them. I’m not an attendee so only Em is going to panels–with names like “On the Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters,” and “Golems and Flying Carpets,” and a film showing and discussion of Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues, where the featured speaker was David Peterson, the linguist who created Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Check out the trailer, and not just for Jason Momoa:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/219368643″>Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues trailer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/conlanging”>Conlanging</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Next year’s Worldcon is in San Jose, California; I’m thinking that gives me a whole year to work on my Captain Kathryn Janeway costume. . . until then I’ll leave you with Emi’s creation: Nausicaä from Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; she’s posing with Worldcon mascot, Major Ursa. Yes, of course puns are encouraged as well as costumes.

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Hello from Helsinki!  It took about twelve solid hours for Emi and me to get from New Hampshire to our little apartment on Helsinginkatu Street, and once we had some much-needed shut-eye, we headed out for supplies.

We began at the open-air Hakaniemi Market, about a 10-minute walk away; markets like these are scattered throughout the city and are generally open at least a couple times a week. A few stalls are creperies and cafes, a few sell knick-knacks and souvenirs, and the rest sell bread, cheese, and the most delightful produce.

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My first discovery, which you can see here nestled between berries and sugar snap peas, is that my favorite mushroom, the chanterelle, is considered the national mushroom of Finland. The wonderfully mild and delicate chanterelle can be foraged from New Hampshire forests, but they are rare–I still remember the one time I found a tiny cluster while hiking in North Sandwich near my friend Holly’s cabin. Hadn’t seen them in the wild before, haven’t seen them since.

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So I usually forage for chanterelles from my favorite mushroom hunters at the NH Mushroom Company when I get up to the farmer’s market in Tamworth, and their rarity means they tend to go for more than $20 a pound. In Finland they cost half that, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Even better, I discovered that research is underway at Aalto University in Helsinki to cultivate chanterelles, a feat previously considered impossible! NH Mushroom Co., will you please try next?

It was when I checked out the S-Market grocery store without the consult of my linguist daughter, that imagesmy illiteracy in Finnish took its toll. Buying produce, bread, and cheese is fairly straightforward; what you see is what you get. Walking the aisles of the S-Market, there was a smattering of English, but more often I was relegated to deciphering the pictures on the package or the etymology of the words, with limited success. As my linguist daughter could tell you, this has much to do with the fact that, unlike English, Finnish is neither Germanic nor Latinate so there’s not a lot of overlap. Here’s the start of my market basket:

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I started off easy: the puddings were English, the salad container had pictures of cuke slices, and I picked out the word risotto on the middle package, so I figured I’d be okay. And with the exception of the risotto also containing lemon and chicken (thankfully I’m not veg) and the cuke salad being pickled rather than fresh, I was okay. With the below items however, I went slightly awry.

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The top left package has a tasty picture of what I thought was some version of pad thai–rice noodles, peas, and little chunks of tofu in what I imagined would be a savory fusion-type tomato sauce. However, the box contained only tofu chunks, with some kind of Italian-based seasoning as far as I could tell. Emi figured the picture was a suggestion of what one could make with the little basil-infused tofu bits.

And no, the bottom left package is not butter, but some butter-type product, which, if I hadn’t been so jet-lagged, I might have known due to the fact that butter does not have those healthy Omegas, just good ole butterfat, which is why I like it. Actually, though, it’s pretty tasty–much better than any margarine I’ve had. Any guesses for bottom right? Pita bread? WRONG. It is fried cheese with a tiny container of cloudberry jam, which I might have suspected since I did buy it from the cold case, though the cold case was directly across from the bread! So close and yet so far away!

For the rest of our stay, whether in the grocery or the cafe, I plan to cultivate a healthy anticipation for the unknown and play Finnish Food Roulette. Just this morning, Emi and I had breakfast at the Cafe Cardemumma where the only word on the menu I recognized was latte (other than cardemumma, of course, which I sincerely hope is cardemom). So I ordered a latte, then pointed to one of the three specials, not quite brave enough to sound anything out.

WP_20130606_004“Oh, I’m sorry,” the barista said, brilliantly intuiting I spoke no Finnish, “we’re all out of the porridge.” Ah, porridge, I thought, that’s what that was. I pointed to the next special on the list. “Omelette?” she said. “With?” “Ham?” I said, “cheese?” “Both?” she asked, and I panicked. Was it improper to order more than one filling for an omelette in Finland? Was I over the top? “Yes?” I said meekly. “Okay then,” she answered, then took Emi’s order of salmon quiche (quiche is quiche is quiche no matter what language you speak apparently).

Our breakfast was delicious, the latte the best I’ve ever had, in part due to my gratefulness at the barista’s kindness and complete lack of condescension at my ignorant American helplessness. Emboldened by the wonderful food and invigorating latte, I tried out my first Finnish word on her when we left. “Kiitos,” I said. Thanks.