Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Oh, The Weather Outside Is Frightful...

I don't know where you are as you read this, but here in Western New York, we are in the midst of Snow season. Considering all the jokes you hear about us on TV this time of year, you'd expect that we were experts at this, and you'd be right. The plows are out, the salt trucks are excreting their burdens, and most of the drivers are demonstrating proper Winter Driving Skills, well-honed from LOTS of experience.

The main reason we became experts at all this began 30 years ago yesterday: the infamous [or legendary, depending on your view of living through an historic event] Blizzard Of '77. The local office of the National Weather Service put together a meteorologic-ally oriented account ten years ago that stands as a good summary of events; USA Today has a more general summary in its archives: But, as in any historic events, the best accounts are from those who went through it. Or, in the following story, a certain Craven Little Coward who managed to get out...

In the Winter of 1977, I was a sophomore at Gannon College [now Gannon University], in Erie, Pennsylvania. I'd come home for January Break, which had passed, for the most part, without any incident. I was planning to head back Sunday the 29Th for the resumption of classes the following day. Friday, however, I began to wonder if my plans would have to change. I'd felt cold. I'd seen snow. But nobody had ever seen anything like this.

In another entry, I've noted that Western New Yorkers normally need at least a foot of snow dropped on us, and the records at the Airport weather office state that only about 12 inches fell during the entire four days. But this snow didn't stay on the ground. It swirled. It blew in every direction, including straight up. With the winds, it became dangerously cold outdoors. It was impossible to get anywhere by car (remember, this was before the SUV, when virtually the only four-wheel-drive vehicles were Jeep runabouts), and very difficult to travel on foot.

Saturday morning, with all the neighborhood stores closed, my father (God rest him!) and I set off on foot for the nearest supermarket, about three-quarters of a mile away. We dragged my childhood sled behind us, figuring [correctly, as it turned out] that the store wasn't going to hassle anyone using anything to help bring groceries home. I don't remember what, if anything, my father and I talked about on the way. There was no point asking him if he had ever experienced anything like this: no one in memory had. We got home without incident, and with a sled-full of groceries.

Sunday, the Bishop of Buffalo excused Catholics from services [in fact, he basically encouraged them to stay home], a first in recent memory. With the morning cleared out of obligations, talk soon turned to my plans. Conditions were worst to the south of Buffalo and, while things were not wonderful, by any means, some roads had actually been plowed (miraculously including the one we lived on).I'd like to think I tried to talk my father out of what seemed like an insane trip: from our home, on the edges of South Buffalo, to the bus station (which locals will remember was then located on Main Street).

But my father was insistent. In retrospect, I think he wanted to prove that he was tougher than any storm. Or maybe he was just getting antsy from Cabin Fever. Anyway, with the help of a couple of neighbors, who dug us out of a monstrously high snow drift, we got our car (a station wagon he'd bought at a city auction, it had formerly been used by a Fire Battalion Captain. The dashboard was full of covered-over spaces, labelled with words like: "Siren", "Lights", etc. It was painted Fire Engine Red which, I suppose, would have made it easy to find in case we did end up in a snow bank) moving, and we were on our way. Some roads were still unplowed, of course, but my father, whose knowledge of Buffalo had been honed by a couple of stints as a cab driver, somehow kept us moving, and somehow got us to the bus station.

As you'd expect, the scene at the bus station was chaotic. Travellers from everywhere who'd gotten as far as Buffalo were desperately trying to get out. I scrambled through the mass of humanity, asked if the bus to Erie was still running, and was told it was still scheduled. Just before it was time to board, the PA announcer came on. He said that Greyhound would make no guarantees to get passengers out of the area [given the weather, probably a fair thing to note]. and that any tickets used, even for a failed trip, were non-refundable. After a brief discussion, my father decided that it was worth a try.

I remember telling him to be careful on the drive home, and to stay inside during the rest of the storm [he ended up going into work the next night, at the VA Hospital, crossing most of the snow-buried city in the process. He was frequently tougher than he let on...]. He told me to be careful, and to call if the trip was a failure. The first part of the ride, as far as the nearby lake port of Fredonia, was a nightmare. For once I kept the light off, giving up my chance to read, so that I could see how far this storm was ranging. I was sadly to be disappointed. By the time the bus reached Fredonia, we were looking at damp, but snow-free, pavement! The rest of the trip passed without incident and, if memory serves me right, we were only ten minutes or so late.

Thus my memories of the Blizzard are roughly the same as most people outside the area, based on TV accounts I saw at school. My family got through the storm without incident, building up a backlog of stories that still come up from time to time.Me? All I got from it was a story about bailing out before things really got bad.

What did Buffalo get from it all? Well, it was the first snowstorm that brought out a Federal State Of Emergency declaration. It also gave most municipalities an attitude of "Never again." No one could control the weather. But I don't think any area is better prepared for snow storms. Now the streets are cleared early. The airport's snow clearing crews are so efficient, their activities are video-taped and watched by crews in other cities as an example of How To Do It when the snows come to those places. Don't get me wrong: we love our Sabres. We're thrilled when the Bills put on a great show in freezing Ralph Wilson Stadium. But the real winter sport of choice in this area is Survival. No, it's doing what we want to do despite the weather. The number of "Bunker Hunkerers" in this region is surprisingly small.

Make sure you dress warmly this morning. You never know...

Friday, January 26, 2007

Time [is on my side?]

Once you've had a blog "up" for a little while, you probably start playing with it. You know, changing elements, or the order in which they're displayed on your page. Maybe you'll even change the entire template that your page is based on. That happened to both of my web pages, this one and http://visionsfromthe I added clocks, changed the order of items, eventually changed the templates. At the moment, I think they look pretty good [Then again, I reserve the right to change it all next week. Or maybe not.].

One of the ways I get inspiration for these changes is to visit other blogs. This morning, while checking the site for fresh fingerprints...err, I mean postings, I checked another site, and found the counter that's reproduced below, just before the commercials. It's courtesy of The National Priorities Project. I'm not taking sides on Iraq in this posting [for the record; I, personally am against the war, and hope the President changes his mind about increasing the number of U-S troops in the region.]. By pointing out the counter, though, I just want to raise a point that even the neocoms may get: the war is costing the United States about $30 a second [based on Congressional allocations]. The debt it leaves behind will be paid by our children. Will they curse us for leaving them the check?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Idol With The Golden Head

As I write this entry, warm as toast on the 12Th floor of a downtown Buffalo skyscraper, I note, almost with a sense of relief, that Winter has finally come to Western New York. Of course, it's never really that simple when it comes to weather here.

In October [October 13Th, to be exact], we were hit with a snowstorm. Not a big one, by this area's standards [Until you drop a foot of snow on us, you just annoy us], but big enough. Further complicating matters, most of the trees still had their leaves. When the snow coated them, the over-burdened branches of many trees gave way, bringing down power lines in the process. As a result, many communities in the area were effectively shut down, with power and telephone restoration taking as long as a week, even in Buffalo proper.

As if to make up for that pre-season fiasco, the weather since then had been positively tranquil, with temperatures no lower that 40, virtually no snow, and that lasting only a few hours. Trees were blossoming, thinking Winter had been cancelled, and moving onto the next season. Squirrels were frequently lax in storing food for the cold times. We marked one of the few "non-White" Christmases in recent memory.

This past weekend, though, we were reminded vividly exactly WHERE we were living. A bout of freezing rain and strong winds, topped off like a sundae with snow, took care of that. As noted above, though, the reaction of many, along with the occasional nasty words when they fell on the ice, was a sigh of relief. This is the weather we signed up for in January, the thinking seems to have gone. We take the snow and cold in Winter, in exchange for almost never seeing a hurricane [or even a tornado], except on TV. As a bonus, we get fairly pleasant, sunny Summers. We may grumble about the arrangements sometimes, but, given the choice between this and, say, triple-digit temperatures and winds that spread fires [like California seems to have a lot of], we usually decide to honor our part of the bargain.

Another sign of Winter, and one that usually doesn't involve gloves, is the annual return of American Idol. (For the unaware: Idol is an incredibly popular national amateur singing contest. It airs twice a week through the Winter and Spring. The winner, selected by telephone vote after weeks of televised competitions, wins a recording contract, a new car, and gets an incredible boost to start his or her singing career.)

While many people enjoy the weekly sing-offs, others [including The Woman I Love and myself] are fans of the "audition" shows. In the spirit of "discovering the next music superstar" [or something like that], almost ANYONE [within the right age group] can enter! Tens of thousands of people line up outside the venues where auditions are held, hoping for a chance to perform before the show's three judges; enthusiastic Randy Jackson, sympathetic Paula Abdul, and acerbic Simon Cowell. The "audition" shows are well-edited highlights of the various stops. Show host Ryan Secrist narrates the segments, frequently telling inspiring, funny, or doofy stories about the various contestants. And then they sing.

Or then they move their lips and emit sounds from their throats that they THINK is singing. Which is rather the point, I guess. Every year, TWIL and I watch the "auditions", and every year she makes the same observation: "Don't these people have friends?" I know exactly what she means. The loners out there, who don't have a chance to bounce their "talent" off someone else, are understandable. But shouldn't someone with a friend or two have one of them, confronted with a "performance" that might make Donald Duck sound like the next Pavarotti, gently pull that potential superstar aside and say, "Honey, look, I love you, but..."
I mean, it's not like Simon [usually] or Randy [more so lately] is going to show any mercy. What's worse, the worst of the "auditions" frequently make up the bulk of the early shows. Embarrassment in front of three or four people is one thing. Why would you risk embarrassing yourself before a TV audience estimated in the tens of millions ?

Then again, I'm now hosting two blogs...

-Mike Riley

Friday, January 12, 2007

Little Things

I've ridden buses regularly since I was in high school (My school had loose-leaf binders for the history books, so we could add the latest reports from Gen. Sherman, en route to the sea), and I've come to the conclusion that there are some real advantages to public transportation. I'm not talking about the obvious environmental bennies. It's more of an intellectual treat. Let me clarify...

I've had some fascinating conversations, met interesting people, while riding the bus. If the rest of the crowd is uninteresting or untalkative [a rare occurrence], there's always people watching while listening to my CD player [no, I'm not iPod ready. If I were to put a "wish list" on this site, it would be there, after "world peace" but before "my own monkey". Just so you know...].

With buses come bus stations. It's a natural, symbiotic relationship. If the bus station serves an inter-city line or two [as the one in Buffalo does], the potential for good conversation, and the occasional moment of enlightenment. Yesterday morning, for instance, I had a moment of both while waiting for the bus home.

As I was walking through the station's main corridor, I heard well-played guitar music to my left. My first thought was that someone was [illegally] listening to a boom box without headphones. Then I looked over, to see a man playing one of the smallest guitars I'd ever seen. The neck was maybe 18 inches in length, but the body was not much larger that that of a ukulele! As a result the sound was not loud, but it was authentically guitar-like.

I walked over to get a better look. The guitarist was a man about my age, but thin, composed, at ease. I said, 'I've never seen a guitar like that." He stopped playing, and said, "I bought one like it a few years ago, when I was in Columbus, Ohio. My main instrument is piano. This is sort of a hobby for me." It turned out that he was an Israeli national, a pianist by profession, visiting family in the Buffalo area. He was awaiting a bus that would take him to a plane.

We talked for a few minutes. He told me that he had sold that first small guitar on eBay, then bought the one he was currently using when he revisited Columbus. When I remarked that the guitar didn't play loudly, because of its size, he noted that it could be played with a pick-up and amplifier, to make it louder.

While we were talking, I noticed the man sitting next to him. He was also from the Middle East. But his features were Arabic. My erstwhile guitarist said, "My friend here will introduce himself, I'm sure. He's very well-educated. He was a doctor in his home of Egypt. We've been sitting here talking, while we wait for our buses." The Arab gentleman [who never did introduce himself, as it turned out] said, "Yes, we've had a marvelous talk." He dipped his head, and added what I had been thinking, "Isn't it amazing that we two would find common ground?"

Amazing? Well, maybe. The two were certainly old enough to remember, as I did, the Six Days' War that found Egypt and Israel in deadly combat. Indeed, they, or their fathers, may well have faced each other across a battle-line. Although their nations had made peace, there were certainly those on either side who would resume the battle in a heart beat, those for whom there could never be peace with such a foe.

Then again, there they were. They had found that common ground along the bridge of a small guitar.


-Mike Riley

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Psychedelic Shack, That's Where It's At

Like a lot of you, I work. And also, [I'm assuming], like many of you, after work I like to watch a little bit ofTV before going to bed. Unlike many of you, though, I work third shift. So more than a few of the programs available to me [around 8:30 am] are children's programs. Some of them [Curious George, Clifford] seamlessly combine educational elements with that most important ingredient, entertainment. And then there's Boohbah.

I'm not saying it's not educational. After all, this came from the same British company [and many of the same people, I'm told] who created the universally-feared Teletubbies. Clearly, we are dealing with a crew of visionaries...

The Boohbas, according to the official British website, , are "five magical atoms of power, light, and fun". To me, they look like five pears with legs, reproduced in colors never to be found in nature. They travel the world in a device called the "Boohball". When they are required to leave it, though, they scootch up from their cramped "travel" position, accompanied by a sound which we used to call "the Bronx cheer". (If you don't know what that means, think "fart".) Once free of the confines of the starship Boohball [Sorry, I thought someone was working on a new Star Trek series], they show off some minimalist Boohbah choreography, dancing around the incredibly bright white space that seems to follow them around. While I suppose it shows some talent, especially from those inside the suits ["Boobies"?], I must be a little too old to see What We're Learning From All This. Or, alternately, How We're Being Entertained By All This.

In addition, there is a PC stock company, representing various types of humans, and one dog. They perform little wordless skits, narrated by an English voice which sounds bored beyond belief by the whole thing [well, yes]. In a rare example of understandableness [is that a word, by the way?], the skits can be interrupted at any time by The Spanish Inquisition [no, wait, that's Monty Python...]. The skits can be interrupted at any time by a group of children yelling out, "Boohbah!" This is the cue for the videotape operator to stop the tape, so some bored prop man can place some object relating to the story where those in the skit can get it. Then, when you turn the tape back on, the item appears in the scene "as if by magic" [Some of the show's special effects are computer-generated, and probably quite complex. This one is not. More that a few silent movies used it].

The second-half of the show is usually taken up by the Boohball visiting some city, where children magically appear inside a huge white space. They are Somehow compelled to move their limbs rhythmically [no, I wouldn't call it dancing, even on one of my kinder days]. The tapes of this have been edited in such a way to remove all reality, as well as any chance for the children watching at home to repeat the moves [even American Bandstand was smart enough to leave the dance sequences alone].

This all looks fascinating, by the way. At times, it comes off as one of the most visually interesting shows I've seen in a while. I'm told it's shown around the world, with gratified children and parents in every country it airs on. But when in doubt, go back to the original website that explains the show [that link above]. One of the two main reasons for the show is to encourage "creative movement". The other, to encourage "creative thinking". My parents had an effective way to reach this same goal. It was called, "Turn off the TV and go outside and play". Sadly, in this dangerous world, that may not always [or ever] be an option. But when I was a child, little girls dreamt of becoming ballerinas, and a few little boys dreamt of dancing glories [or at least, scoring touchdowns for the Bills]. Have our children so little imagination that we have to encourage it? Or, as I'm beginning to suspect, have this generation of parents so little time, or interest, in giving their children exposure to the arts?

I blame it all on TV...

Mike Riley

P.S.: Do you like that clock? If you'd like one for your blog, or one of some 30 or 40 different styles, roll your cursor over the clock. This should expose a click-on ad for ClockLink, which graciously provided the HTML code [your clock should be free as well, unless you opt for some kind of custom job. There are also ads here now. I'm not encouraging or discouraging you on this one either way. Some of you may be displeased that I've given up my "amateur" status. But anything that comes in helps me to pay for mint tea and creamer, the two key ingredients this column runs on [along with your comments, of course]. - MR

P.P.S.: I just remembered I still owe readers of this blog an account of my playing Santa at my church. I will get it onto the blog this year. Maybe as a "Christmas In July" feature, I'm not sure. But it will be up before 2007 has ended. (By the way, I hope your 2007 is happy and productive...) - Also MR

Friday, January 5, 2007

Strange Days Indeed!

I was nearly killed or injured last night while I was waiting for the bus [now, how's THAT for an opening sentence?]. Oddly enough, this is one of those true stories that may pop up amidst all the stuff I THINK is true that turns out to be made up in my brain.(There were several other witnesses to this, so I know it happened.)

I was at the Niagara Falls bus station, standing outside, enjoying the unusually mild weather we've been having. Suddenly, a car screeched up to the station entrance. A man got out of one of the passenger doors, in the middle of a serious argument with someone inside the vehicle [the driver, as it turns out]. It had something to do with his moving out of his girlfriend's apartment after two years. I, along with the others outside, heard the man tell his apparent ex that she could keep his things. Her responses, though probably audible to the man, were muffled and unclear to the rest of us. Finally, he gave her a suggestion about what she could do to express her feelings [As his language was rather strong, I'll let you fill in this blank].

He walked over to us, and started to explain his version of events. Just as he did so, we all heard a screech. We looked up to see the car coming at all of us at a high rate of speed! No horn, no nothing! Just two-thousand-odd pounds of car, heading right for the group of us outside the building, and picking up speed as she did so! She swerved to try and hit him, almost hitting an innocent bystander in the process, and just missing the station building. She then proceeded to chase him down a small grass embankment, across a usually busy street [miraculously, there was no traffic just at that moment], before giving up the pursuit in a parking lot across the way.

(In the interest of accuracy, when she swerved right to hit her former boyfriend, I'd jumped left, and was really in little or no danger.) That being noted, it took all our hearts a few minutes to resume normal operations. Several people, including an NFTA employee who was inside, called the police. When they arrived, the innocent bystander and former boyfriend both declined to press charges. The un-hitched male was philosophical, noting that the things he'd left at her apartment were just "material goods", and could be replaced. The bystander was strangely calm about the whole thing [then again, he'd just rented, among other things, the un-rated version of the horror flick "Pulse". This may have set him up for an even better viewing experience...].

If only all innocent bystanders could have such happy results! Unfortunately, "innocent bystander" has become an all-too-frequent synonym for "victim". In that spirit, I direct you to our link, , which connects to an article in the "Buffalo News" of January 4th, 2007. It pointed out the disturbing fact that almost 20 % of Buffalo's homicide victims last year were innocent bystanders [their definition, quite reasonably I think, included cashiers, taxi drivers, and delivery people killed while performing their jobs.].

Some people may feel an article like this, heavy on morbid reminiscences and light on solution, comes off as nothing more than hand-wringing. But sometimes, the first step to cure a disease is an unblinking look at the illness...

-Mike Riley