The Caps? Really, the Caps? The Caps!

The Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992, a little more than a year after I moved to town. I didn’t care; I grew up as a St. Louis football Cardinals fan and hated the Redskins, was living in a world of weird on a work assignment in New Hampshire and remain to this day a non-fan of the franchise.

What I didn’t realize: That. Would. Be. It. 

That Redskins title would be the last for DC in the Big Four sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) until this very day, 26-plus years later. Sure, the Washington Capitals somehow made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, but that was widely considered a fluke appearance. They got swept, and deservedly so, by a legendary Detroit Red Wings squad. Only the worst sports homers were surprised. It was a great, amazing thing that they just got there.

After the Caps got to the Cup final, 20 years went by. No Big Four team from DC even went to a semifinal in that time. The Redskins became a cosmic joke, and on the rare occasions they made the playoffs, they generally folded up like a tent. The Caps made the playoffs all of the time, occasionally as the best team in the NHL by record, but their playoff futility (so much of it at the hands of the hated Pittsburgh Penguins) became the stuff of endless pain.

No one really expected the Wizards to rise far above mediocrity (which is still true). And I can’t talk about the Nationals. I just can’t.

Fast-forward to today. The Capitals just won the Eastern Conference title via not one, but two Big Boy stompings of a hugely talented Tampa Bay squad. They beat the Penguins before that to get to the semifinals, and they rallied from losing the first two games at home against Columbus in the first round.

They have, in short, absorbed several punches to the gut in these Stanley Cup playoffs — the kinds of punches that would cause previous Caps teams to roll up in the fetal position. Instead, these Caps have responded by punching their opponent right in the mouth.

Now comes Las Vegas, of all teams. That is an amazing story. Most of sports-fan America is going to root for Vegas — from an empirical standpoint, how can you not? — and the Knights have the home ice advantage because of their superior record. But Tampa was even better record-wise (and I think talent-wise) than Vegas, Pittsburgh was the two-time defending Stanley Cup champ, and Columbus was scalding hot and rising at season’s end. The Caps put them all down.

These Caps have no fear. These Caps don’t quit. These Caps aren’t like all those other Caps teams. I don’t know if it will be enough to win it all, but it’s enough to give a fan some faith.

Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin

This is Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin. He built it in his shop in Irrigon, Oregon in 2015 and it’s the cheapest one he makes, which still means it’s not really very cheap. It is, however, far cheaper than the instruments that most luthiers make, and it’s well-built and solid and fun to play.

I’m not really a mandolin player, although I play one sometimes on stage. I’m a harmonica player, which to most people means I might as well play the penny whistle, or at least it does until they hear me play. But as my interests turned away from pure blues and more into rootsy and folky stuff, the reality is that harp doesn’t fit into all of that. I cast around for another instrument, and Lord knows the world has all the guitarists it needs, so I turned to the mando. Even a few simple chords on mandolin can help with a lot of songs.

That’s where Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin comes in. I have a fancier mandolin, made in the 1990s by Alvarez, that looks more like the mandolins you’ve seen bluegrass players pick on stage. It sounds wonderful and looks even better, but that mandolin overpromises and my talent underdelivers, so I’m more comfortable playing this one on stage.

I’ve played Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin enough to leave some gouges in the beautiful red cedar top, and it’s rattled around a little too much in its case and caught a few more nicks that way. That’s not entirely a bad thing. Musicians have a saying: Guitars have scars. The pretty instruments are the ones that don’t get played. The ones with nicks and gouges and worn-off paint are the ones that produce beautiful music. My mandolin has some well-earned scars, which is how it should be.

I am the second owner of Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin. The first owner was a banjo player who bought it so he could learn another instrument. He gave up interest after a couple of months, which is too bad because it means he still plays banjo, but then he sold it to me at a discount and the mandolin looked as good as new when I got it.

Howard Morris’ 332nd mandolin is what is known among players as a “flathead.” Most mandolins are carved so the top and bottom are arched, which allegedly helps project sound, and they have F-shaped holes like a violin. This leads to a sharp, percussive, surprisingly loud “barking” tone. This one has a flat top and bottom (much easier and cheaper to make) a small body and an oval hole. It has more bass and sustain than most mandolins, but the small body means it’s not terribly loud. I amplify it anyway on stage and the acoustic volume doesn’t really matter much.

Howard Morris still makes mandolins, and he focuses on instruments that are short on bling and long on tone. I am grateful to own his 332nd mandolin. Here’s hoping he makes hundreds — even thousands — more.

Battling the noise

I remain on the lookout for curmudgeonliness. I think it’s a banana peel next to my grave, and I want to avoid my grave as long as possible, so I try to keep away from the seemingly constant pissing and moaning that affects so many in my age group.

But I don’t always succeed. A big failure point for me involves texting.

I have several friends or groups of friends who use texting as a method of casual conversation. They’re bored or they just want to share an opinion about something, so in comes the text.

And I ignore it. This, for the record, is not a good way to keep up friendships.

But for me, this is part of a larger rule: I am in charge of my technology, not the other way around. This is why I turn off Facebook and Twitter notices that pop up on my phone, along with most of the other alerts that clutter peoples’ devices. It’s why I answer most email on my terms, not yours, unless you’re my boss or further up the food chain. And it’s why I usually don’t use text messaging — especially the horror of group text messaging — for casual chats.

Instead, text messaging from/for me serves a utilitarian purpose — it updates people about where I am, it is a way of checking in when I actually am asking a question or need an answer, and so on. It’s boring, but it’s effective. Anything else…well, I usually just let it pass by.

This position on my communications tech does a remarkable job in keeping all sorts of noise out of my life. And if that makes me a curmudgeon…well, then I am one in this particular arena. I won’t be so busy with my phone, though, that I miss seeing that banana peel.

A roofing adventure

I know a lot more about roofing than I did a few weeks ago. I have debated the merits of GAF Timberline vs. Certainteed shingles, considered whether I wanted matte black or charcoal black shingles on my roof, learned that the boards that go across the rafters of the original deck are called “planking,” and mulled the merits of synthetic underlayment vs. the traditional roofing felt. I also got to meet Edgar the brick mason, Adam the Roof Guy, some shady cold-callers who just showed up at the house, and a couple of other pretty decent guys whose companies I didn’t hire (but seemed perfectly trustworthy — I just had to pick somebody).

All of this started after the freak early March wind storm. During a big wind gust, one of the tall cypresses in my back yard snapped about eight feet up from the base and smashed into my shed and the roof of my house. That involved a good 20 feet or so of tree, but because it was a cypress (a skinny evergreen), there wasn’t nearly the weight that would have hit the house if I’d lost a big hardwood. Nonetheless, it punched a hole into the shed roof and several smaller holes into the house roof.

Well, we were planning to replace the roof this spring anyway. And the chimney, which was untouched by the tree, needed some patching.

Still, we had an immediate problem. This led to frantic calls to our regular tree service, our insurance company and pretty much any roofing company that would answer the phone. We called more than a dozen roofers before we found one who could come out — the combo platter of springtime roofing season and the massive windstorm created more work than the area roofers could handle — and a few days later, a roofer spent half an hour hammering maybe $100 (probably less) worth of roof underlayment over the holes for $600.

I wrote the check because I had to write the check, and insurance reimbursed me anyway, but that pricey visit came into play later when I called back the same company for a replacement bid. They were the high bid. I felt they were total pros. I was not confident they were charging a fair price, though, and that was that.

(Meanwhile, the heater died forever and another three grand floated away from our bank account, but that is another story for another time.)

I lined up a couple of more bid appointments. Meanwhile, my wife talked to a neighbor, who was going to get her roof replaced and just had her chimney worked on (exactly the same work I needed). She had talked to the general contractor down the street, and he recommended a mason and a small company that did a lot of roof work for him.

And thus, I wound up using Edgar the mason and Adam’s Roofing. Edgar stripped down and rebuilt the four feet or so of chimney brick that is exposed at my house, and I thought he did a terrific job. Meanwhile, Adam’s work was visible on houses all around the neighborhood, and it looked really good even years after it was installed. His bid was strong, too. I decided to go with him.

He used subcontractors for the roof and gutters, which gave me pause, but he said he’d been using the same roof sub crew for more than a decade. Let’s not kid ourselves anyway — most roofing work these days is done by subs, whether you like the concept or not, even if you hire a giant roofing company that runs ads all over radio and TV.

The roof crew did terrific work, including replacement of a lot of bad wood (220 feet of planking — I believe the last re-roof was done by the original homeowner, and a lot of the planking looked really rough from the attic). Here’s some of that — and this isn’t the side of the roof that got hit by the tree:

The finished product looked really good, too:


It’s been a couple of weeks now, and we’re about to get two days of rain. I’m pretty confident my new roof will pass that test. If the appearance is any indicator, I have nothing to worry about.

On St. Lucia

St. Lucia is impossibly beautiful. People are friendly. The trade winds are the best I’ve experienced in the Caribbean — they’re constant, but not overwhelming, and they chase away the mosquitoes that can haunt you on other islands.

Yet I had a “meh” time on the island earlier this month, and it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

What I discovered — and would have known if I’d done more homework — is that St. Lucia is an island better suited to people staying in resorts, not independent travelers. Its size and steep, mountainous roads make it difficult to get around; it has a hefty population that plugs up traffic in urban areas; it draws a lot of seriously moneyed tourists and yachtie types who polished a handful of areas beyond where I’d ideally like them. It also had fewer beach options than I ideally would have preferred, although some of the ones there are seriously beautiful and the island’s interior is just stunning.

It’s an island that you go to if you have a lot of cash, want to have someone peel you a grape at a resort, and are willing to hire guides or drivers to help you get around. If that sounds like you, you’re going to love this place. If you basically want to bum around and hang out on beaches…not so much.

For the next few years while we still hope to afford it, I’d anticipate my wife and I will take a winter vacation to Saint Somewhere. For the last few years, that’s meant hitting up one or more of the Virgin Islands, a place I love dearly. Two Category 5 hurricanes took them out of the picture this year. I was hoping St. Lucia would be a substitute, but it wasn’t — it wasn’t empirically better or worse; it was just different. You might like that flavor of “different.” It just wasn’t for me.