Geometry for Massachusetts Drivers

Outsiders often think that the Bruins and the Patriots represent the numbers one and two contact sports in Massachusetts. Not so–it's driving and politics--in that order. It may not be our fault in driving; though non-charitable folks call us "Massholes. "I blame it on poor geometry teaching.

Consider this a Public Service Announcement. Those of you who live in other common-sense-challenged areas–like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wyoming–can adapt this PSA for local use.

1. The octagon. It looks like the figure to the left and it is always red in color. In usually contains the letters S-T-O-P, which means you are expected to come to a complete halt, as in the tires must stop rotating altogether. In theory, you are supposed to remain still for three seconds. Now comes the tricky part. You are not allowed to continue until no other cars impede your progress. Any vehicle standing to your right has priority over you. Please dispense with the notion that you can go whenever you think the odds are in your favor.   

 2. Angles: The illustration below is very useful in comprehending the concept of allowing your vehicle to change its direction left or right, which is generally expressed as making a turn. To execute a turn, however, one needs a complete understanding of 90-degree angles. Assume you are driving along the bottom x-axis from where it says 45 on the right.  To execute proper 90-degree right turn at the small square,  you need to perform an L-like maneuver. Anything less than this–especially those that create a 45-degree V-like angle is called a veer. The veer—exemplified by the line connecting 45 to 45–is very dangerous, especially if there is another car at the corner where you wish to execute a turn. The veer runs the risk of removing the front part of the other vehicle. Most car owners object strenuously when a complete stranger violently severs the front end of their car.

3. Shortest distance between two points: A popular folk saying holds that "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." This isn't  always the case. As this illustration shows, for a hiker on the round earth or a tennis player seeking to back pedal on a lob, the shortest distance might involve the use of a bisecting angle. Mostly, though, you should forget you ever heard anything about the shortest distance. The shortest distance isn't necessarily the safest distance.

Let's assume you're driving and you see a squiggly sign like this one. Some drivers think this indicates that there is a snake in the road and immediately speed up, as they hate reptiles. This is an incorrect reading of the sign, which actually means that the road itself is non-linear. The correct response is to reduce your speed so that your car will remain safely stay on your side of the road.

Under no circumstance are you allowed to come to any of the curves and bisect them by going straight because it's the "shortest" distance. That's actually illegal. If you are still struggling with the concept, imagine the times in which you have to make several turns because there are annoying buildings in your way. You don't like this, but you know it's much safer to go around the block rather than trying to thread your car though someone's front door, dodge potential objects in the living room, drive through the kitchen, and exit through the back door. You know this from all those pictures in the paper of those who unsuccessfully tried this maneuver. Now imagine landscape as a flat, green version of annoying buildings and avoid driving on it. One final reminder: The squiggles indicate that executing the curve might be difficult, so reduce your speed. A good rule to follow is to make sure that, at all times, that all four of those rubber round things near the undercarriage of your car remain in complete contact with the road at all time. These are called "tires" and road contact with two or three out of four is insufficient. 

4. Narrow roads. Observe this symbol very carefully. You will see that it is wider at the bottom and narrow at the top. No—this is neither a minimalist milk bottle from Picasso nor a trompe l'oeil wine bottle. The picture indicates that the current wide road surface on which you are traveling is about to become much narrower—perhaps even just a single lane in width. You should slow down when you see this symbol as it's another situation in which you could remove another car's front section, thereby distressing the driver of said vehicle. It's also a very bad time to send a text, look for something in your glove box, or decide to floss your teeth.

5. Left arrows versus straight and left arrows. These two shapes confuse loads of Massachusetts drivers. This is higher geometric thinking, so read carefully. The first arrow means that you must turn left, as in immediately. It does not mean that you can turn right as long as you intend to make a left hand turn at some point in the next five miles. If you make a right hand turn at said sign in order to hasten your journey to the place where you will make a left and mangle another's vehicle, you will not be able to tell Mr. Policeman that you thought it was okay since you were making a left in about 30 yards. The policeman will then glare at you and ask, "What part of 'only' did you not understand?" as he writes the ticket and the other driver calls a lawyer.

The second sign advises you to travel in a straight direction and then turn left when you come to the lane dedicated to that purpose. The difference between the two figures is subtle, but crucial. The easiest way to distinguish between them is to note that there is but one line in the first figure, but there are two in the second. In which lane would you wish to be if you intended to go straight? If you guessed the right lane, well done!

6. Upside down isosceles triangle. This is called a "yield sign." In this context, yield means that cars coming from directions in which there is no upside down triangle possess the right-of-way. Yielding also implies that you must wait until they have vacated the space before you proceed. Contrary to popular practice, yielding is not a motorized guessing game. "I sure did think I could make it," is another utterance that will make Mr. Policeman very angry with you. He will also quite gruff if you take the position that you had plenty of time to pull out, as evidenced by the fact that the opposing vehicle missed you with centimeters to spare when he slammed on his brakes.

Here are a few more, listed by right/wrong interpretations.

Correct: "There is a bumpy road surface ahead. I guess I should reduce my speed in the interest of safety."

Wrong: "Hey Marge, why the hell is there a brassiere sign along the highway?"

Correct: "This area is prone to rock slides, so I guess I should be alert."

Wrong: "Damn, I sure could go for a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal right now."


Right: "Under certain conditions this road surface might cause my vehicle to slide. I must be careful in cold and wet conditions."

Wrong: "Oooeee, Earle. They want us to spin out and do donuts on this road!"

This is a sign for a rotary. We'll be here all week if I try to explain a rotary and what those curving arrows mean. It's simply too complex for most Massachusetts drivers. My best advice is that you whenever you see said sign, you interpret it to mean, "Oh my God! I must get off of this road immediately!" You should turn off before you reach a rotary, even if it means doing a U-turn and heading back in the direction from which you just came. Seek alternative routes. This is higher-level math and it's best to admit that you're no Einstein.


Meek Men, Lydia Loveless, Communist Daughter, Seth Walker, North of Here

See if you can wrap your brain around this one. The Meek Men are a Swedish songwriting duo (Jonas Lundberg, Kenneth Holmstrong) who sing in English and orchestrate a band of other Swedish musicians who back them. Lundberg is also a therapist and drama teacher. Holmstrom once toured with legendary Detroit rocker Sixto Rodriguez (Searching for Sugarman), but the duo's music is mostly soft rock with echoes of bluegrass, Irish music, country, and acid folk. The lyrics are poetic and their album Dumdedum is centered on the idea–in their words–that "the difference between a good life and a good lie is a single letter." Got that? You should, because even on the rare occasion in which this album doesn't work musically, the lyrics are more literate than most of what comes from native English speakers. The vocals remind me of a smoother version of Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), but the music comes at you from various angles: "I See the Horizon" has a Maritime/Canadian Celtic vibe; "Dodo Birdies Song" is a country/James Taylor-like hybrid; "How Do You Do" is light jazz rock; and "Hooke's Law" is where Garmarna meets Celtic and country. Quite a few of the songs call into the question the value of participating in the rat race. The album's nonsense title comes from a line in the equally oddly titled "Dodo Birdies Song" and is a metaphor for foolish pursuits: On your mark get born, get ready/Young man Ho-hum, we'll see you when you're done. "Diggin'" is a list of futile searches: for a counter-revolution…writing on the wall…a mental constitution…for the meaning of it all…. And it all comes down to the command to Keep on diggin' until I get a bigger hole. "Humble R U" is a takedown of egotism and faux compassion; "Carousel" asks of life: … who wrote the script? Who set the harmony? "Another Kind of Spring" uses the passage of the seasons to ask the rhetorical question: We had a higher vision, didn't we? But if this sounds like Scandinavian angst, that's not quite accurate. There are several quiet and tender songs, but mostly the Meek Men seek poignancy by hitting us with feathers instead of bricks. It's an accomplished album musically with loads of instruments, including accordion, dobro, guitars, fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, saxophone, and penny whistle. Even if you find the voclasa bit too subdued for your tastes, Dumdedum remains one of the year's smartest albums.

Are you a fan of Patty Griffin? If so, you'll also enjoy Lydia Loveless, a self-described "alt.country" singer from Columbus, Ohio. Her newest album, Real, is much like Griffin in that Loveless obliterates the lines between country music, folk, pop, and rock. Also like Griffin, Loveless has a "small" voice, but empowers it through no-holds-barred power that creates the effect of beauty with heft. Part of that heft comes from a dynamite band—Ben Lamb, Todd May, Nick German, Jay Gasper, Nate Holman–that creates a rich, full sound. Check out the jangly guitar stew of "Same to You" and the deliberate scratch-the-chords frame for "Longer." In the latter, Ms. Loveless' vocals are at once dancey, strong, and gorgeous. It's simply a fabulous song–like everything else on the album.

I recently stumbled upon a St. Paul, MN-based indie rock band called Communist Daughter. With a handle like that you might expect didactic politics, but the name was actually lifted from a lyric by the high-energy punk band Neutral Milk Hotel and is used more ironically than ideologically. The band's material is actually very personal–a reflection of founding member/vocalist/acoustic guitarist's Johnny Solomon's travails. His was not, until recently, an enviable bio: divorce, addiction (booze, meth), bipolar disorder, and a stint in jail. The songs I sampled generally take introspective themes and wrap them in sounds that are somewhere between folk and trippy acid rock. The tune of "' "Not the Kid" has echoes of the Kinks' "Lola," but "Speed of Sound" is as moody as Snow Patrol. Song lyrics often allude to isolation and struggle. "Speed of Time" opens with: Man I hate this town/So I'm looking for the only way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe/not the life I found. "Soundtrack for the End" is a breakup song with the clever line: …we took six of one/And nothing from the dozen. Solomon is now married to vocalist Molly Moore, with whom he harmonizes beautifully. Good band and hopefully we'll hear more from them in the future. Check out their Introducing Communist Daughter sampler on Noisetrade.

Seth Walker is an electric blues artist you should get to know if you're not already familiar with his work. First of all, the dude has one of the best record label names going: The Royal Potato family. Second, he mixes gritty nothing-but-back-luck songs with catchy, sunny ones that are miles smarter than most of the syrup one tastes on pop radio. Third, he's really, really good. His newest album is titled Gotta Get Back from which I was sent two sample tracks: "Dreamer," a sweet, hopeful song about imagining the potential of a new relationship; and "Home Again," with its sharp hooks and a tune that's so memorable that you'll not think of it as just another road song. These two inspired me to listen to material from his backlist. One of my favorites is the misery-loves-company "Grab Ahold." He sings, "Grab ahold of me… and we'll both go down together," the irony enhanced by the tune's faintly gospel feel. I really enjoyed "Rewind," a rockabilly/light soul mash with the ambience of a Sam Cooke selection. One of the many joys of listening to Walker is that he doesn't dwell in any one place for long. "Wait a Minute" has a reggae-like back kick to it; "More Days Like This" is a finger-snapping tribute to the moment when you're so much in love that you want to freeze time. And so it goes. Check him out, folks.

Remember those youthful days of hanging out with others and imagining what your life will be like in the future? That's the vibe of North of Here, four friends from Alberta whose May Hay While the Sun Shines has an innocence that is easier to grasp visually and aurally than to describe. Their song "Let It Burn (RedCoals)" was a major nostalgia trip, as it's about sitting around a campfire musing and conversing–exactly what I used to do with a couple of high school buddies with whom I recently reconnected. North of Here is a bluegrass ensemble, but the of the sort that owes more debt to performers such as Fleet Foxes than to Ralph Stanley. And you'll definitely hear Milk Carton Kids squared in the amazing four-part harmonies of songs like "Don't LookAbove." The instrumentation tends to build around Ian St. Arnaud's mandolin. This is a young band–so young they joke about the challenges of emerging facial hair–and at present they are more sweet than accomplished. But they are also irresistibly precious and I can't help imagining what they'll be like in just a few years if they keep the friendship fires kindled. My goodness—those harmonies….  

Rob Weir 


Manchester by the Sea a Superb Adult Drama

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Roadside Attractions, 137 minutes, R (language, suggestive sexuality)

 Manchester by the Sea is centered on a searing question: Can you contemplate being accessory an unintentional deed for which you can never forgive yourself? The film has garnered lots of early praise, and Casey Affleck has emerged as the odds-on favorite for Best Actor for his lead as Lee Chandler, the person who must answer the above question.

We first meet Lee in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he works as janitor for an apartment complex. It's a shitty job-often literally so–but he usually doesn't mind as he's done the above deed and he's now as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. He'd probably while away the rest of his life in affectless aimlessness, but for the phone call that lands him north to the twee North Shore town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. (The hyphens have been removed for the film–presumably to make it friendlier for posters.) Lee's beloved brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), a fisherman, has just died and, to Lee's chagrin, Joe has appointed him as guardian of his sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee loves his nephew, but he also feels deep in his soul that he's not fit to be a surrogate dad. But if not Lee, who? Joe and his alcoholic wife, Elise (Gretchen Moll), divorced years ago and she left the area. Perhaps family friend and fellow fisherman George (C. J. Wilson), but he and his wife are getting on in years and watching their own children move out. Then there's Patrick himself to consider. He's a strapping good-looking guy who loves the water and is pretty content being a high school hockey hunk over whom girls swoon. He's also salty-tongued and headstrong ; he flat out refuses to move to Minnesota to be with another relative, or to sell his father's in-need-of-major-repairs boat.

One reason to see this film is to experience Manchester-by-the-Sea by as we seldom see it. It's generally considered a snooty, wealthy town. And so it is–for the resort and second-home set; if you're a local or a lobsterman, not so much.  Director and scriptwriter Kenneth Lonergan leaves the high rollers in the background and refracts this film in hues of blue-collar. As we learn in various flashback sequences, the lives of the working-class Chandlers hasn't been the stuff invoked by picture postcards and sprawling houses overlooking the bay. Some of the misfortune has been of their own making, but lots has simply been from the bad hands they've been dealt. As if Lee doesn't have enough on his plate, his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) reappears, as does Elise and her serious Christian second husband (Matthew Broderick).

This has the makings of a tense drama, which is exactly what Manchester by the Sea is. Affleck and Hedges are both terrific and I can see why Affleck and Oscar are mentioned in the same breath. We (too) often honor histrionic performances from actors portraying someone plagued by extraordinary circumstance (physical challenges, gender confusion, looming death), but Affleck has a much harder role. How does one "show" us anything about a man so dispirited that he yearns for emotionless anonymity? How does that actor make us care about someone from whom being "ordinary" would pass as ambition? Hedges also hits a lot of the right notes, especially when he's being a typical teen with emotions that are a bundle of contradictions that come out in unexpected ways. Outwardly he's no more broken up by his father's death than over being unable to work out the logistics of having sex with the flirty Sylvie (Kara Hayward), or being annoyed by the offbeat drumming in the really bad garage band in which he and Sylvie play. (The band scenes will take you back to your own teen days and make you cringe!) But watch for the subtle ways in which Hedges releases emotions. In real life, Hedges is just 19; his future looks very promising.

Whatever problems this film has are small and are mostly script-related. Hedges is very good, but sometimes his role makes him seem more on the cusp of 35 than 17. Michelle Williams' performance has also been praised, but I'd call it typical Hollywood in that her role in underwritten and is more of a cameo than anything deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nod. Hyper-masculinity is one of this film's subthemes, so don't expect a lot of screen time for Moll or Hayward either. The argument that a male-centered worldview resonates with blue-collar life will not go down well with those critical of how Hollywood pushes women to the margins. One could also make a good case that the film is overlong for one in which more is left unsaid than is vocalized.

I'll grant that it's not a perfect film by any means. Still, I give it huge props for sticking to character and avoiding clich├ęd transformations. My guess is that this film will open strongly and taper off fast–in part because of my last point. I overheard a woman say to her friend as they exited the theater, "I guess we should have gone to the comedy instead." This film won't please those seeking miracles and nostrums. In other words, many will eschew it for exactly the reasons I admired it.

Rob Weir