Archive for September 21, 2009

Money, Money, Money

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment


No, not that painful ABBA song. I’m talking about change. Years of change. Years and years of change. We bring it home. We put it on the counter. It accumulates. Gail saves an old Scottish shortbread tin. We dump the coins in there. Gail gets some more British tins. We dump more coins.

And then along comes Coinstar. A few years back. They have this machine at the local QFC. Bring change. Dump it in. Get money. Use it at the store to buy food. But there’s a catch. For every dollar in change that you put in, you get 93 cents back. Is it worth it? Well, I suppose it is if you’re never going to spend the money otherwise, but accepting a 7% discount is hard. So the coins keep piling up.

Meanwhile, Coinstar is diversifying, offering new products, but we’re not keeping up. Until last month, when Gail was back in Boston helping Joel close up his apartment. It seems he had his own coin collection. They went to the Star Market, found a Coinstar machine, and tossed it all in. And get this. If you are willing to take you money in the form of a certificate to redeem at one of several enterprises, you get full value. Amazon for instance. Or iTunes. CVS. Borders. Lowe’s. (See here for the list.) Is that great or what? Joel comes back to Seattle with about $75 to spend at Amazon.

Here at home, thanks to our continuing remodel, the house is a mess. It has been for weeks. But we decided yesterday and today to regain the use of our dining room, where we had moved the contents of much of the kitchen a few weeks ago. And so, this morning, I say to Gail, let’s take this tin of coins (which must weigh 30 pounds) to QFC already. Then I hesitate, and ask what happens with foreign coins. Do they get filtered out and returned to us? We don’t know. I dump the coins onto the kitchen counter and begin the laborious search for foreign money. Then Gail decides that while we’re at it, we should go through all the quarters in order to pull out the ones that started getting minted in 1999 with state designs on the reverse side. She wants to be sure we have samples from every state.

What a pain! But we did it. We pulled out dozens of quarters, along with coins from France, Canada, Romania, Bulgaria, Denmark, the UK, Yugoslavia. Everything else went with us to QFC. I had imagined that you just pour the coins into the Coinstar counting machine and it quickly does its work. But no, you can only put a few coins through the sieve at a time. It took over 10 minutes. Still, it was fun, since you can watch the readout as the counting takes place. Gail and I took turns pouring. The machine rejected about 20 coins, returning them to a slot at the bottom. It counted 3994 coins. No wonder they were so heavy. We had 2166 pennies, 446 nickels, 744 dimes, 636 quarters, and 2 half dollars. That’s $278.36.

And that wasn’t it. Gail remembered as we were driving to QFC that she had another tin upstairs. When we got home, she brought it down. She then through the state quarters, putting some aside for the collection. The rest, along with the additional tin, went to another QFC and another Coinstar machine, three hours later. It was happy to count our 211 pennies, 61 nickels, 105 dimes, 96 quarters, and 2 half dollars. That’s $40.66.

Imagine that. 4469 coins. $319.02. Here we come, Amazon. And let’s not wait another decade to do this again.

Categories: Money

Nantucket Notes

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment
Wauwinet:  houses just north of the Wauwinet Inn

Wauwinet: houses just north of the Wauwinet Inn

Two and a half weeks ago, on the eve of our departure to New York (and subsequent Labor Day departure from New York to Nantucket), I quoted from one of my very first blog posts, in which I wrote that “each time we go, we become further convinced that there’s no place else we would rather be,” and wondered if the feeling would wear off. I guessed that we were going to love it, but I wasn’t sure.

Well, we loved it. Rain was expected throughout the week, but it didn’t arrive until we got out of the taxi at the airport for our departure. We got lucky there. On the other hand, in contrast to our visits the last three Labor Day weeks, this one felt more like fall than summer. Temperatures were in the 50s and 60s, strong winds appeared Wednesday afternoon and pretty much stayed through our departure 48 hours later, and we saw less and less of the sun with each passing day. Still, it was so beautiful, as always.

Here are comments on various features of our stay. [I began this post a week ago, but didn’t get far. Now the details are less vivid and the excitement less intense, so maybe I won’t have much to say. I’ll pick up where I left off, and call it quits when I run out of steam.]

1. The flight there. We took USAir’s 8:45 AM flight out of LaGuardia, a Saab prop jet with 12 rows of seating, each row consisting of one window seat on the left, window and aisle seats on the right. A pretty large group got off the plane on its arrival from Nantucket, but only four of us got on. Not too surprising. Labor Day marks the end of the summer season there, so we were very much going against the flow of traffic. With only four passengers, we were instructed to sit in the last four rows for weight distribution purposes. I started out sitting on the left. This provided a superb view of Queens as we took off to the south over Citi Field (the Mets new stadium) and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. We turned north and then east over Long Island Sound, following the Connecticut coast line for a while. But we ended up on an easterly track a little to the north of the coast, so my view got less interesting, prompting me to take advantage of the relatively empty plane by moving over to a window on the right. I wish I had done so sooner. By the time I did, we had gotten near the eastern end of Long Island.

I should note that the views were especially good, since we were never very high off the ground, so it was fun to pick out various geographical features. Long Island runs east-west some 120 miles, forking near the end. The northern fork (known as the North Fork!) is short compared to the South Fork. It ends at Orient Point, which we were due north of when I shifted to a seat on the right. Farther to the south, I could see the South Fork stretching out to its terminus, Montauk Point, past the Hamptons. We drew even with it, with Fishers Island directly below us. I never had such a clear view of Fishers Island. Shifting back to the left, I could see the opening to Narragansett Bay, with Newport just below. Then we began our descent and shifted slightly southwards in course, toward Nantucket. As a result, we were soon flying south of and parallel to the southern shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It looked just like on the maps, with Chappaquiddick Island on its eastern end. We were now out over the ocean, lining up for our landing at Nantucket Airport. We hit some air pockets, had some moments of weightlessness as we fell, and made the turn to the northeast, with the runway straight ahead. It’s one of those runways that starts just past the water, and when you approach in this direction, you hope the entire time that your descent isn’t too rapid. You want to see some land under you. Which happens not a moment too soon. If you can ignore that, you see beautiful houses just off the beach, and the town less than 2 miles to the north. It has become such a familiar and welcome sight to us now. We were thrilled to be back.

2. Our initial trip to town. We were at the Wauwinet by 10:15, hours before check-in time, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to get our room. We just wanted to drop our bags and get the shuttle into town, so we could shop, stroll, get some lunch, and return when the room was ready. I had anticipated that we would have some time at the inn before the shuttle left, time I intended to use to change into shorts if it had warmed up, but once we checked in at the front desk, the 10:30 shuttle was getting ready to leave, so we raced on. It’s about a 15 minute ride to town, some 9 miles away. And town was crowded, more than we are used to, with people milling around before taking ferries off the island to conclude the Labor Day weekend. Crowded, hot, sunny. After 5 minutes walking around, I was way too hot. We ducked into one of the few national chain stores on the island, a store I had always avoided, Ralph Lauren, but I was desperate. I bought some shorts and was set.

Having been up since 5:00 and not having a proper breakfast, we were ready for lunch by 11:30, so we went to our old standby, the Fog Island Cafe. It’s right in the heart of town, on South Water Street the street one would take to walk from Main Street over to the Steamship Authority ferries, which presumably is why it was so crowded. We had never seen it like that before. I had the chicken enchiladas with black beans, the meal I envied Gail for getting a year ago. It was good. Then we headed to Mitchell’s Book Corner, one of Nantucket’s excellent bookstores, a block north of Ralph Lauren on Main Street. I had managed not to bring a mystery or thriller with me. (Truth is, I ordered one from Amazon to bring with me, only to realize the day before it came that I already had it. In fact, I had already read it.) So I thought I might find one at Mitchell’s. And I did. I bought Lee Child’s very first Jack Reacher thriller, Killing Floor, in paperback. As I was about to pay, my cell phone rang. It was the Wauwinet, telling us that our room was ready. And the time was only 12:50. We decided to curtail our excursion to town and get the 1:00 shuttle back. So that was it. Ralph Lauren, Fog Island Cafe, Mitchell’s Book Corner. It was sunny and warm, though, and we wanted to take advantage of the good weather to be out on the back lawn of the Wauwinet, reading and looking out at the harbor.

3. The bike ride. We haven’t done much bike riding of late. Of late being the last twenty years. Back in the 1970s, I rode my bike all the time, all over greater Boston. I would head off from my Cambridge apartment — north, west, south — and keep going, usually aiming for some park, maybe out by Route 128, then head back. Or I would take the bike with me up to Vermont and ride up there. For whatever reason, once I moved out to Seattle, I rode less. Gail and I got new bikes at one point, but we never really followed up.

Yet, there’s a history to bike riding in Nantucket for us. In 1985, we went to Nantucket on the tail end of our honeymoon. We had already spent weeks in Europe, mostly based in Paris and Glasgow, and some time in New York on either end of Europe. Nantucket was the last highlight. The previous summer, after a conference in Ottawa, I had spent some time in Boston, staying with my friend Gerry, and we went down to Nantucket by car and ferry for three days. It seemed natural a year later to suggest that he meet us there, so Gail and I flew in from New York while Gerry came down from Cambridge. We again spent three days and two nights, renting bicycles each day to ride to one beach or another from our base in town. On the middle day, our one full day, we headed east to ‘Sconset. (‘Sconset, short for Siasconset, is the largest concentration of homes outside of town.) ‘Sconset is easily reached. One heads out of town south about a mile to the rotary, then heads east maybe another 6-7 miles on a bike path paralleling the island’s main road, until one finds oneself in town, just above the ocean. We went down to the beach, then had ice cream at a store before heading back. But to add variety, we came back the long way — northwest about 4 miles or so, the east southeast another 7 miles. Again, there are bike paths most of the way. And at some point, I lost Gail and Gerry. I don’t know what happened. I was feeling good, I had a good rhythm, so I kept going. And when I looked back, they were gone.

Now, I remember this as a good ride, but Gail remembers it a little differently. In any case, 24 years later, it was time to re-visit our memories. From the Wauwinet without a car, one can get the hourly shuttle to town, but one can’t go anywhere else very easily unless one uses a bike. We hadn’t been to ‘Sconset on our recent trips. We were eager to return. So we borrowed two of the Wauwinet’s bikes, tried them for size, adjusted the seats, found helmets that fit, and were on our way. It’s two miles south from the Wauwinet before you reach one of the main roads. It is in fact the road on which I lost Gail. From that intersection, one can join the bike path and head east, then southeast, then south to Sconset. It’s probably about 4 1/2 miles from the intersection, or 6 1/2 miles total. Not exactly a hard ride.

Hard for us though. My seat kept slipping. The seat was uncomfortable. My thighs were hurting. I had no problem on the cardiovascular side. I never went fast enough long enough for it to be an issue. And even though Nantucket would seem to be flat, we discovered that it’s not so flat after all. The hills, mild though they are, hurt us. If I downshifted too much, I was dead. If I tried to maintain a higher speed in a higher gear when I approached and began to climb a hill, I was afraid I would lose Gail. It just wasn’t working well.

We were thrilled when Sankaty Head Lighthouse came into view. I thought it was in Sconset. I hadn’t realized that it’s about 1 1/2 miles north. But it was a beautiful sight, and gave us a sense of progress. As we drew near, we found ourselves riding by the course of Sankaty Head Golf Club. And once we got past the course, we began to pass the northernmost houses of Sconset. We took an unnecessary detour when we were just 100 yards from the center of town, because a road was blocked by cones and we weren’t really sure where the center was, so rather than ignoring the cones and going the 100 yards that would bring us to the center, we made a loop around. And then we were there, in the tiny commercial center. There’s a traffic circle, a flagpole in the middle, and three store fronts. One is the post office, another a restaurant, a third a sandwich place. We tried the sandwich place, ordered our sandwiches, sat on the patio in front to eat our lunch. Around the corner is the Sconset Market. We made three trips into it, first to look around, then to buy Gail a sweatshirt, and then, as we were about to ride out of town, to buy ice cream, as we did 24 years ago.

As is so often the case, the ride home was easier. Well, not at first. I just couldn’t get comfortable on the seat. But then we got going and all was well, until the final hills near the inn. This time I lost Gail only in that final stretch. Occasional discomfort aside, it was a perfect outing.

View from our window:  harbor to left, ocean to far right

View from our window: harbor to left, ocean to far right

4. Dinners. We always make it a point to eat at Topper’s, the restaurant in the Wauwinet, on our first evening. And we have come to love 21 Federal, one of the restaurants in town, so that takes care of a second night. With only four nights, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to explore the other restaurants. A year ago we went to DeMarco, also in town, and we were eager to return. That would leave room for only one new place, which we decided would be the Boarding House. Our schedule was set: Topper’s, Boarding House, 21 Federal, DeMarco. Except that ultimately we decided to forgo DeMarco. We wanted to do a little shopping Thursday, and we decided it would be more enjoyable to go into town in mid-afternoon for the shopping, followed by a walk to a part of town we hadn’t been to before, after which we could just take the shuttle back to the Wauwinet and have a relaxing final evening, including a light dinner in the Topper’s bar. That’s what we did.

Topper’s may be the fanciest and most expensive restaurant on the island. We love it. We eat breakfast there every morning. (It’s included.) But one dinner there is enough. I had the crab and lobster cakes to start. I always do. Next was the beef wellington, which I had a couple of years ago. One interesting feature — they put some layers of corned beef in the crust along with the filet. I can’t remember what Gail had. It’s been two weeks. I should have written about this before. Dessert was spectacular. I just wish I remember why.

This is hopeless. I better stop discussing the meals. I’ll just say that we glad we tried Boarding House. Lovely restaurant. Excellent food. Odd service, though. And 21 Federal was superb as always. We’re delighted to have so many good choices.

5. The Spa. The Wauwinet has a spa. I don’t remember its being there before last year. Or if it was, it was in a different location. But now it occupies a house that you pass if you walk from the Inn down the road to the path that leads over the dune to the ocean. Gail had a massage there last year. When we were scheduling our meals a few weeks ago, we called the spa to schedule a massage again. Looking over the brochure just before calling, I noticed one item under “additional” that was the briefest in duration and the cheapest. A foot bath. I asked Gail if she wanted to try that, and she suggested I do too. I’ve never done anything like it. I’ve never done anything at a spa. But I figured what the heck. We could sit together, pass the time, and I would learn something. That’s what we did. Gail had her massage Wednesday afternoon. I walked along the ocean. And we had our foot baths at lunchtime on Thursday.

Once again, time has intervened. I don’t remember much. It started with a brief neck massage and a tiny bit of aromatherapy. I don’t know what to make of the aromatherapy. My specialist waved her hands in front of my face with some scent being given off. If it did anything, I didn’t notice. I tried to relax, soak it in. And then came the foot bath, which included some pretty serious massage work from the knees down. There were times when it just plain hurt, but I assumed it was for a good cause, so I endured it, eager to see the benefits. Pressure was being applied to parts that weren’t used to it. It all ended with our being sprayed in our faces with something. The point of that was lost on me.

I don’t think I’ll be racing to a spa any time soon. But it was interesting, and Gail and I could compare notes afterwards. I don’t think I would have done it alone.

6. Heading home. One thing about island life — it’s hard to get off. A year ago, because of bad weather up our way, the plane that was to take us to JFK took a few hours before it left JFK on its triangle route to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and back. This year, the bad weather was down in New York, the same bad weather that made a complete mess of the US Open tennis championships that day and the next. Our plane from LaGuardia left there about an hour and a half late. Once it got in, it had to sit for another couple of hours before it was allowed to come back. So we got out around 4:45 instead of 1:55. And there wasn’t much to see. We were up in the clouds within seconds of takeoff. We headed northeast for a few miles, then made a big turn back to the west, at which point there was a small break in the clouds through which I could see three different ferries in Nantucket Sound between the island and the Cape. But then they were gone and we didn’t see anything again until we were about 500 feet off the ground on our descent into LGA. What we saw was lots and lots of apartment buildings. I was kind of hoping we’d see Grand Central Parkway real quick, and then the runway, because it sure seemed like we were going to land on the roofs. We were about 30 feet off the ground when we finally did come over the parkway, and then we were on the ground. Not a scenic flight. But not bouncy either, despite the weather.

That was that. So long Nantucket. There’s still so much we have yet to explore. We hope to be back soon.

Resident, up the road from the Inn

Resident, up the road from the Inn

Categories: Books, Food, Restaurants, Travel

Ichiro, Felix, Greinke

September 21, 2009 1 comment


Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer declared in the paper Friday morning that “it’s the best sports week ever.” That was his opening. Then he retreated, saying, “OK, maybe not ever ever, but it’s been a long time since Seattle has had such a hefty and buzzworthy slate of sporting events.” This was news to me, but I had missed a few items. The Yankees were coming to town for a three-game series against the Mariners, beginning Friday night. Saturday, the UW football team would be hosting #3 ranked USC at Husky Stadium. Sunday, the Seahawks would be playing the 49’ers down in San Francisco. Not all that unusual a confluence of events. But I had not realized that, also on Friday, the Seattle women’s basketball team would be hosting the LA team in a playoff game, and on Saturday, our pro soccer team, the Sounders, would host LA. And to top it off, one of the big high school football games in the country would be played Friday night in the suburbs. Skyline, apparently the top high school team in the state, was to play Oaks Christian, up from California, in a game ESPNU would be televising. To add to the excitement, Skyline has one of the country’s best high school quarterbacks, while Oaks Christian has the sons of Will Smith, Wayne Gretzky, and Joe Montana.

Well, that really is special, huh? Given that I’m pretending football season hasn’t started yet, I wasn’t as excited as I should have been. And I was already bugged by the silly ads the Mariners were running in anticipation of the Yankees’ visit, describing Seattle this weekend as Cooperstown West thanks to the large collection of presumed future Hall of Famers: Griffey, Ichiro, Rivera, Jeter, perhaps others. The newspaper ad featured photos of Ichiro and Rivera.

We missed Friday night’s Mariner-Yankee game. We were having a Rosh Hoshana dinner with friends. Once we cleaned up, I read the results online and realized it was a great one. Forget the Cooperstown West nonsense, but it did culminate in an Ichiro-Rivera confrontation, so the marketers were on to something. Our young pitcher Felix Hernandez — King Felix — who at the age of 23, in his fifth season, has achieved the greatness expected of him, was on the mound against A.J. Burnett. Felix pitched all nine innings, giving up 2 runs, but only one of them earned. The unearned run came on an opening double by Johnny Damon in the top of the 6th, followed by a passed ball to Mark Teixeira on which Damon went to third and a deep sacrifice fly down the left field line by Teixeria on which Damon scored. The Mariners managed only 1 run off Burnett in 7 innings and no runs off Phil Hughes in the 8th. Thus, after Felix completed pitching the 9th inning, the Mariners were down 2-1 as Rivera came in to finish them off. He had not blown a save opportunity in his last 36 tries, going back to last August. And he hadn’t blown a save against the Mariners since 1997. Game over. Probably.

Rivera strikes out Hannahan and Carp to open the bottom of the 9th. Then Mike Sweeney pinch hits for Josh Wilson in the 9th slot and hits a double to deep right center. Here comes Ichiro, top of the order. He had won the game against the White Sox the day before with a single in the bottom of the 14th. Can he hit a walkoff winner two nights in a row? Or will Rivera prevail. It only took one pitch to find out. Home run. Game over.

The game didn’t mean much for either team at this point in the season in terms of playoff chances, but still, it was special. And Felix got the win. He raised his won-loss record to 16-5 and lowered his ERA to 2.45. Why it’s almost enough to make you think he should get the Cy Young Award this year. The Mariners are such a low-scoring team. With more run support, he might be a 20-game winner already. The problem with arguments such as this is that they apply with even greater force to Zack Greinke. He leads the American League in just about every major stat besides wins. For example, his ERA is 2.14, well below Felix’s, though Felix is second.

SI’s Joe Posnanski has repeatedly made the case in his blog for Greinke as this year’s Cy Young winner. He’s happy to put Felix second, but views Greinke’s case as airtight. I think he’s right. His most recent argument was particularly interesting. I’ll describe it, but let me first remind you of what ERA+ is. ERA (earned run average) is the average number of earned runs a pitcher gives up every nine innings. When comparing pitchers across baseball history, this is unsatisfying, because conditions have changed over time — night games, height of mound, and so on. Also, comparing pitchers in a given year by ERA alone doesn’t take into account what kind of parks they pitch in. Half their starts, roughly, are at home, and they may pitch in a park conducive to runs scoring, or the opposite. ERA+ compares a pitcher’s ERA to the average ERA that season in the league. Divide average ERA by the individual’s ERA to get a number, a little over 1, say, if the pitcher has a slightly below average ERA. Then multiply by 100. And then do an adjustment based on ballpark. Good pitchers should have an ERA+ somewhere in the 100’s. Great ones, in great years, might reach 200 or above. It doesn’t happen often. (See a list of best ERA+ seasons here.)

Okay, so here’s what Posnanski did in his post on Friday. He asked which pitchers, in a season, threw 200 innings or more, had a 200 or better ERA+, and had at least 200 strikeouts. Here’s what he came up with — pitcher and year.

1. Pedro Martinez, 1997, 1999 and 2000.

2. Roger Clemens, 1990 and 1997.

3. Walter Johnson, 1912 and 1913.

4. Dwight Gooden, 1985.

5. Ron Guidry, 1978.

6. Bob Gibson, 1968.

7. Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1905.

8. Christy Mathewson, 1905.

As Posnanski comments, “each of those seasons was legendary.” But wait, there’s one more:

9. Zack Greinke, 2009.

Yes, Greinke is in the midst of an historic season. Posnanski: “Greinke’s is not just the best pitching season of this year. It’s probably the best pitching season of the last five years, maybe the last 10 years going back to Pedro. It’s historical. The guy has pitched 210 innings, he has a 204 ERA+ and 224 strikeouts. He leads or is second in the league numerous other categories — gone over those a few dozen times already. But all you really need to understand the season is that 200-200-200 thing. This is a magical season. … Greinke is without a doubt that best pitcher in the American League. He’s the best pitcher in baseball. He’s having one of the great pitching seasons of our lifetime. Other guys are having good seasons — Felix Hernandez is having a hard-luck, Zack-Greinke-lite season. Justin Verlander leads the league in strikeouts. Roy Halladay is Roy Halladay. C.C. Sabathia might win 20. But if someone else should happen to win the Cy Young because he won five more games than Greinke or something irrational like that, well, I don’t believe it will happen. I just don’t. He’s going to win the Cy Young.”

For the record, Felix has pitched 216.1 innings so far this season and struck out 196. He’ll pass 200 strikeouts soon. His ERA+ is 176, excellent in its own right, but not near 200. (Find Felix’s stats here.)

Let me add one more note in the Cooperstown West vein. Yesterday, the Mariners beat the Yankees yet again, with Ken Griffey looking like the Griffey of old. He hit a run-scoring double in the first and a three-run homer in the second. You may recall that I had a post last month on career RBIs, wondering why people don’t pay attention to the milestone figures as they do with hits and home runs. Today’s Seattle Times article on the game for instance let us know that Griffey’s home run, his 16th of the season, was the 627th of his career. But what about the 4 RBIs? They moved him to 1822 total. He passed Frank Robinson since my last post, moving up to 17th place overall. Another 23 RBIs will move him to 12th, ahead of Al Simmons, Dave Winfield, Rafael Palmeiro, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski. He won’t answer questions about whether this is his last season, but the guessing is that it is, in which case he won’t get those 22 RBIs. And in five years, he’ll go to Cooperstown East.

Brewer was right. Pretty good weekend.

Categories: Baseball, Sports

1959 Bel Air

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment

The 1959 Chevy Bel Air was one of the great American cars. (Just ask my friend John, who has owned several of that vintage.) I understand the 2009 Chevy Malibu is one of the best cars Chevy has built in a couple of decades, though no one expects it to be a classic. Which one wins in a head-to-head battle? See for yourself, above. (HT: Tom Vanderbilt.) GM may not design ’em like they used to, but on the safety front, the good old days are now, not the ’50s.

But, as some youtube commenters note, what a waste of a great car.

Categories: Automobiles