The Search for the Perfect Breakfast Sandwich

On a recent frigid morning, I followed a series of footprints left in the freshly fallen snow up to the front door of the Loose Goose Cafe on East Pleasant Street in Amherst. I knew the cafe had closed sometime last month, but felt the need to confirm it nonetheless. Sure enough, the sign on the front door read, “Thank you for 14 years of business. We will miss you all!”

What a disappointment.

I like egg sandwiches — a lot — and Loose Goose, a jazz-themed restaurant which specialized in all sorts of gourmet sandwiches named for jazz musicians, made great ones.

I usually opted for The Solo (egg and American cheese on a choice of bagel — the whole wheat worked well). But The Count (Basie) (egg, American cheese and bacon), The (Dave) Brubeck (egg, Swiss cheese and ham), and The (John) Coltrane (egg, cheddar cheese and turkey) all proved as delectable as Ron Carter’s walking bass line pacing a 16-bar tenor saxophone solo.

People can get pretty particular about their egg sandwiches. Fried egg? Scrambled egg? Meat? Veggie? Burrito wrap? Bagel?

“It can be a big dialogue when you let someone build their own,” said Helen Kahn, owner of the Cup and Top Cafe on North Main Street in Florence. “But regulars usually know what they want.”

Last summer Brooklyn journalist Joseph Checkler started a Kickstarter campaign in order to print and distribute instructional egg sandwich leaflets promoting what he called “best practices” to delis throughout Manhattan. Checkler’s check list included fried eggs, cooked on a griddle, served messy with lots of cheese — and ideally with meat.

He’d like the Classic Egg Sandwich (egg, cheese and meat on a bagel, toast, or English muffin) served up at Sylvester’s, on Pleasant Street in Northampton. And if I’m sitting with the newspaper at Sylvester’s counter top, I might agree with him.

But for me, the art of the egg sandwich lies at the confluence of both the taste and the ease of eating.

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The Other Good Life

Pioneering back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing lived in the shadow of Stratton Mountain before it was a ski resort

Stratton Mountain sits some 45 minutes north of Brattleboro. The drive up state Route 30 encapsulates much of what visitors and residents alike love about the Green Mountain state. The single lane road follows the meandering West River alongside the Green Mountain National Forest, through picturesque villages Newfane and Jamaica, straight into the heart of southern Vermont.

Downhill skiing has been a permanent fixture here for over half a century, and the region enjoys more than its fair share of popular resorts. Bromley, Mount Snow, Magic Mountain, and Stratton are all under an hour’s drive from Brattleboro, and the snowy slopes of each area are visible from the summits of the others.

Stratton’s access road leaves Route 30 and climbs quickly, treating its travelers to more impressive mountain views and a handful of ambitious out-of-state drivers anxious to arrive at the slopes. After negotiating the heavy foot traffic by the base village and the overflowing parking lot farther down the road, I make my way to the Tamarack lift, which is not moving.

I’m not surprised. Tamarack is the ski area’s oldest lift, one of the few that has not been replaced by a high-speed, detachable six-person chair. And it serves mostly beginning skiers looking for easier terrain. Those two factors often cause a greater number of delays.

After a moment or two the lift clangs back to life. I take my seat, and am propelled — slowly — up the mountain.

A few minutes later, the chair comes to a halt once more, leaving me suspended over Tamarack Heights, a cluster of multi-million dollar private homes accessed by a private road that was tunneled under the ski trail just a few years ago. The Heights is among the most recent developments at a resort that cut its first trail 50 years ago, when back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing were writing about the subsistence lifestyle they enjoyed.

Catering to a high-priced crowd that has affectionately dubbed it “the upper north side,” Stratton Mountain is well known for its European-style ski village, an abundance of second homes, extensively groomed terrain, and high-speed lifts. So it is surprising to hear that the Nearings lived their version of “the good life” right here, in the shadow of Stratton Mountain. Continue reading

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Whole Children of Hadley to Show The Crash Reel: The story of how an extraordinary family deals with disability

During Thanksgiving dinner at his home in Vermont two years ago, champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce, 27, finally told his family that he realized that the brain injury he had suffered in a crash on the slopes three years earlier had changed him forever.

He looked at his brother David, 30, who has Down syndrome, and told him that he accepted the limitations he now faced. His days of X Games glory were over. Their mother Pia turned to David and asked: Would Kevin’s acceptance of his traumatic brain injury help David accept his Down syndrome? David’s eyes welled with tears as the other five family members sat silently. It was a long moment. “It’s hard,” David said finally. “But I will try.”

That scene is from the HBO documentary “The Crash Reel,” the story of the rise and literal fall of Kevin Pearce’s snowboarding career and how the Pearces have coped with disability that has affected just about every family member. Beside Kevin’s brain injury and David’s Down syndrome, the father, Simon, who is an internationally known glass blower, and three of the four children have dyslexia.

On Feb. 8, Whole Children, the Hadley-based organization that provides social programs for children, especially those with special needs, will host a screening of the film and an appearance by Kevin Pearce at the conference center at Baystate Health Whitney Avenue in Holyoke. Kevin will talk about brain trauma and answer questions. Pia and David are expected as well. Dr. Barry Rodstein, of Baystate, will also speak about brain injury.

“We want to share this story with the community because it is such a positive message about resilience and disability and the power of family,” said Valle Dwight, communications and development manager at Whole Children. “That’s a message that aligns to our mission — which is focusing on strengths, overcoming adversity, and supporting families.”

Dwight and Pia Pearce have known each for six years, ever since Pearce contacted Dwight looking for an organization that could assist David. The Pearces were living in southern Vermont at the time.

“There’s a lot of resource sharing in the disability community,” Dwight said.

And now, with the organization looking for a way to mark its 10th anniversary, several people suggested showing the film, she said.

“The movie is an amazing glimpse of a family dealing with disabilities on multiple levels.”

That family, said Kevin Pearce in a telephone interview, “has done everything. And continues to do so.”

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“Four-wheel Drive for Your Feet”: Snowshoeing offers accessible outdoor exercise

Several times a week during the winter months, Mary Jo Maffei steps into her snowshoes and heads out the back door of her Shutesbury home and off along a trail that was cut by her son. The red-blazed trail, which the family calls the Quackenbush Connector, leads uphill into a forest of hemlock, maple, and birch.

She hikes quickly, usually accompanied with her dog, a poodle-bichon frise mix named Walter, working to get her heart rate up, keeping warm in just a polypropylene shirt, wool sweater, hat and water-resistant pants.

“I’ve gone from absolutely despising winter to loving it,” said Maffei. “I don’t like being cold, but I love the feel of the cold on my cheeks. It’s really invigorating.”

The Quackenbush Connector was cut by Paul Quackenbush, 23, who started the Amherst Regional High School Nordic ski team six years ago. He and Maffei’s other family members, daughter, Lenna, 20, and husband, Jeff Quackenbush — are all avid cross-country skiers. But for the past dozen years, Maffei has stuck to snowshoes.

“I like being outside, and used to downhill ski,” Maffei said, “but snowshoeing is more my speed.”

Snowshoes, which mimic the larger hind feet of the snowshoe hare, allow their wearers to walk on top of the snow instead of sinking in through soft powder.

“I go places on snowshoes that I can’t on skis,” Maffei said. “They bring me closer to the natural world.”

Maffei is one of a growing number of people who have taken up the sport enthusiasts say offers the freedom to trek wherever they want in all types of conditions.

“Put on a pair of snowshoes, and you can go anywhere,” said William Gabriel, manager of the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center in Northfield. “It’s like four-wheel-drive for your feet.”

Some people also find it less intimidating than skiing, skating or sledding which involve more gliding, higher speeds and a greater risk of falling.

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Natural Manure

A new Springfield Armory exhibit examines the controversial Shays’ Rebellion and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Aaron Dwight Stephens was born in Connecticut in 1831. As a young man, he ran away to join the army and served in the Mexican War — until he was sent to jail for threatening the life of an officer. Stephens escaped from prison, however, and relocated to the Kansas Territory during the violent pro- versus anti-slavery pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas. There he joined up with abolitionist John Brown. Later, Stephens traveled with Brown and his band to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia) and participated in Brown’s failed attempt to take over the arsenal and end slavery in the United States by distributing weapons to slaves throughout the Appalachian Mountains.

Brown and his men were famously defeated by troops led by soon-to-be Confederate war hero Colonel Robert E. Lee. Despite being shot four times during the raid, Stephens survived the battle — only to be sentenced to death by hanging.

Today, the rifle Stephens used in the attack at Harpers Ferry sits behind a glass case in the Springfield Armory, part of the new exhibit Arsenals Under Attack! Daniels Shays’ Assault on Springfield and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, which runs through March 22, 2015.

“Stephens survived just long enough to get hanged,” Springfield Armory curator Alex MacKenzie tells me as we look at the glass case. Below his rifle, Stephens stares back at us from an old, black-and-white photo.

Arsenals Under Attack! explores the controversy and impact of both raids, not just through objects and images, but also via period quotes responding to each event. The space in the armory occupied by the exhibit is small — a mere 250 or so square feet — but the information contains much to digest and ponder.

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SceneHere: Signs of Ferguson

As media members from The Republican, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, ABC 40 Springfield, and CBS 3 Springfield waited under a wintry noonday sun, 200 students walked out of class to the applause of a handful of older activists and gathered at the entrance to Amherst Regional High School. After thanking a dozen or so students from the middle school who had joined them, they stayed silent for four and a half minutes — to represent the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body lay on the street after he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

Students bowed their heads. Newspaper photographers snapped pictures. Kathleen Anderson, president of the Amherst chapter of the NAACP, raised her right fist. The American flag flapped gently at the top of the school’s flag pole in the chilly December breeze.

When the long moment was over, the march began. The students headed to town at a brisk pace, past the school’s football field, then down Lessey Street, holding signs that read among other things, “Being black isn’t a crime” and “Would you shoot me?” and chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racism has got to go!” The elders lingered behind.

Walking up Main Street along the sidewalk, the students passed Pasta E Basta and Amherst Books. As police officers stopped traffic, the students crossed the downtown intersection without breaking stride and rallied at the steps of the Jones Library.

Motorists turned their heads as they drove along the busy streets. A few honked supportively. A man in a New England Patriots jacket recorded the marchers with his cell phone. Two others lingered on the sidewalk, listening as students spoke through a megaphone. A woman in Amherst Coffee stepped outside to photograph the crowd.

Standing on a truck parked in front of the library, Amherst School Committee representative and UMass professor Amilcar Shabazz led the crowd in chants of “No justice, no peace!” (Or was it “Know justice, know peace”?)

As the students applauded, a moment of strange serendipity: a man drove by, largely unnoticed, in a company truck labeled Ferguson Signs.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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The Other John Hodgman

In his new comedy show, the part-time Western Mass. resident plays himself

As a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, John Hodgman plays the Deranged Millionaire and the Resident Expert, the latter of which grew as an extension of his first book, The Areas of My Expertise. On Bored To Death he plays Louis Greene, the nemesis to Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan Ames. As Judge John Hodgman, he adjudicates on issues such as “is chili a soup or a stew?” in a regular column and podcast for the New York Times Magazine. And, perhaps most famously, he was the PC opposite Justin Long’s Mac in a series of Apple computer television ads.

So I am a bit surprised when Hodgman answers the phone as himself — or at least, as the character purporting to be John Hodgman — to discuss his new one-man comedy show I Stole Your Dad, which he performs this Friday at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

“Doing comedy alone on stage,” Steve Martin wrote in his autobiography Born Standing Up, “is the ego’s last stand.”

Hodgman seems to agree. “It’s more personal than anything I’ve ever done,” he says, “a stripping away of all of my personas.”

In I Stole Your Dad, he talks about 24-hour surf shops, cats watching public television, his experimentation with marijuana (as a 43-year-old), and “the lamest DJ battle” he’s ever been part of. He also transforms into Ayn Rand to read selections from the film criticism he imagines she would write for Parade Magazine.

The show deals with several adult themes, Hodgman says, though they are decidely un-sexy, PG-13 adult themes, like “neurosis, and the fear of irrelevance.” Regardless, it still is a comedy show. “I will be telling jokes,” he says.

I Stole Your Dad explores some of the same themes Hodgman discussed in his Mayan apocalypse-themed comedy show Ragnarok, which brought him to the Calvin Theater stage in 2012.

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