Chez Shaffner

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Harvard-Yale 2006 – Part One

Two weeks late reporting on this, continuing a recent trend...

Another year, another meeting of the Harvard and Yale football teams. Alumni of these two schools and people living in Massachusetts still call it “The Game,” though I think a lot of other rivalries stake a claim to the same title. But so long as Wikipedia still refers to Harvard-Yale as THE Game, those other rivalries can kiss our Ivy League asses.

The outcome of the football contest itself was pretty ugly for our side, and having watched all but five minutes of the action, I’d say that we were lucky the score remained so close. Yale beat the ever living hell out of us.

While I was in college (and for five years afterwards), the Harvard-Yale game marked the one time each year that we had a real college party. It might not be the Big Ten or the SEC, but it was kegs and cheeseburgers and freezing our butts off for six hours.

Two years ago, I scrambled eggs for a dozen friends at my apartment, cracked our first beers at seven-thirty, and partied hard through the afternoon. Two years ago I made it inside for part of the fourth quarter, though most of our crew partied through. Two years ago, people flew in to sleep on my floor. Sadly, it appears those days have ended.

Last year, I made the trip to Yale with two of my buddies. We brought a few cases of beer and stood around them. We ended up running into about a dozen people we knew, and that was it. I knew then that the sun had set on our annual mini-reunion.

Above: The Harvard Band and the hand of God, or something...

This year, I was excited about The Game mainly because it was my opportunity to show Keryn that the Ivy League could have a real football game. Now, I knew better than to suggest that it could hold a candle to her idea of a college football game –she went to Ole Miss, and The Grove is world famous as a tailgating venue (though “tailgating” might be an insult), so she’s something of an elitist regarding what constitutes a real football game. Anyway, despite my enthusiasm, I still managed to request my tickets a week past the class seating deadline, which meant we were five sections over from all those classmates I was supposed to be excited to see. Oh well, I’d see them at the tailgate.

Above: Though this picture may raise some doubts, I was stone sober in the stone stadium.

But we never found the tailgate. In the HUPD's continuing quest to confuse and bewilder, the tailgates were a disaster; in typical Bostonian fashion, the signage was poor. Adding insult to injury, heavy rains had turned the rugby and soccer fields into a viscous soup. I swiped one beer from what turned out to be the Harvard Business School tailgate, and by the time I learned we were two fields away from the class tailgates, it was time for kickoff.

Mark the official pre-game tally as one beer drunk, zero tailgates attended, and one classmate encountered (fifty feet from the gate of the stadium)… On the plus side, the weather was amazing. Sunny and clear, low fifties temps. A right fine day to toss around the pigskin. Into Harvard Stadium we marched, ready for The Game…

In tomorrow’s installment: recalling a brutal workout, explaining the band’s Hand of God bit, and the joys of concrete bench seating…

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Downtown Christmases

Almost every time I state this piece of Shaffner trivia, someone looks at me askew: For all but two or three Decembers, my family had an artificial tree for Christmas.

“But didn’t you live in Maine?” people ask, incredulous. “Couldn’t you have cut the tree from your back yard?”

Truth is, I loved that steel behemoth. Exposed metal at the end of each prickly bough was color coded to indicate where on the central wooden post it should go. We dumped three Hefty bags of boughs onto the carpet and began our annual family project as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes were dried and put away. It took a solid forty minutes to assemble that tree, another thirty to loop the twinkle lights and garlands back and forth across it, twenty more to place two ornaments on each and every prickly bough, and five ecstatic minutes for my sister and me to cast tinsel here and there and everywhere. Ray Conniff’s orchestra twirled carols on Mom’s rickety record player as we turned down the living room lights and smiled at the sparkle.

When the tree succumbed to rust, we hacked down a live spruce from the farm two miles up the road. We had real trees for several years, but it was never the same as that old artificial gem. Mom and Dad have a new fake tree now, but it’s not as nice as the one we had growing up… No fake tree can compare to my idealized memory of that old steel tree.

The flower shop next to my favorite bookstore had a bunch of real trees propped against the bricks today. I didn’t remember them having trees in prior years, and the survey the proprietor cast my way as we completed our transaction (do you live in the neighborhood? you do? how about these heights? should I have gotten some seven footers? eight footers?), confirmed my recollection. Upon seeing those trees this morning, the Christmas spirit seized hold of me. Ours is not a huge apartment, and there is no natural nook to hold a full-sized tree. To make matters worse, I tend to think big: a perfect tree for me touches the ceiling. But for once I thought with a level, practical mind: if I shoved my desk into the corner, shifted the couch forward two feet, one of those smaller trees might fit without forcing us to dine in the front closet.

I shelled out the dough and threw that tree over my shoulder. Down Newbury Street, up Mass Ave, along Commonwealth, wielding a five-foot Douglas fir. I almost lifted a woman’s purse from her shoulder with the tip-top of my tree. She should have known better than sneak past a tree-bearing man on his blind side, if you ask me!

Sure enough, it fit, and we hopped in the car to procure the fixings. Four hundred twinkle lights, two strands of silver garland, twenty cheap shiny ornaments later, we’re ready for Christmas in the Back Bay.

(Now if only I can get started on the pesky matter of shopping…)

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Sudden Fits of Global Warming Anxiety

Am I the only person in the Northeast currently suffering this unusual condition? At 12:30pm Monday afternoon, I threw on my gym shorts, a tee-shirt, and my warmest fleece. From my lobby to the gym is 2.1 blocks. One of these days I’ll count the steps. Basically, I have no excuse for skipping my daily cardio. No excuse. Anyway, this time of year, I expect to burn three extra calories shivering my way those 2.1 blocks. Not today: upon stepping outside I learned that my fleece was too much. It was a short-sleeves day here in Boston, Mass.

November 27th, a short-sleeves day? What the hell is going on?

I may be pretty liberal in a lot of respects, but an environmentalist I’m not. Still, short-sleeves on November 27th feels fifty-one flavors of screwed up.

It has gone the other way from time to time. Last week, I showed Keryn my favorite photo from college. In black and white, twelve men are covered head-to-toe in mud and grime. Two days before Chris Min snapped that pic, on April Fool’s Day 1998, we received three feet of snow. Snow in April? Eight years later we have short sleeves in December.

I’m not complaining, exactly… I have held a permanent address in only two states—Maine and Massachusetts—both of which are known for their wicked winters, yet I have always hated the snow and cold. Still, enjoying the warmth does not mean that I’m comfortable with it. See the distinction? I didn’t think so.

During my most recent visit to the barber, Ron told me that he heard our Massachusetts climate will soon resemble the Carolinas. I think it’s wrong to root for that statement to come true, but what makes me nervous is how days like today force me to consider for a moment whether he might be right… For now I’m going to make the most of these crazy temps. I’m sure three weeks from now big drifts will settle on the streets and I’ll regret jinxing things with this posting...

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Imogen Heap @ Avalon, 11/11/2006

My introduction to Imogen Heap came by way of The Chillout Session 2006, a tremendous compilation set from The Ministry of Sound. (If you can get your hands on it, do. It sells out at Amazon pretty quickly, though they seem to get small batches every few weeks...) I was fortunate enough to stumble across this album last January at the now-defunct Virgin Megastore on Newbury Street. It has seldom left the five-disc turntable in my living room since…

SIDE NOTE: Among my favorite quirks of this import: not only does the José González version of “Heartbeats” open Disc One, but the original version of the same song (recorded by Knife) appears midway through Disc Two. (At first I thought I was imagining things, but they are indeed the same song…)

Anyhow, “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap is one of the stand-out tracks on the album. An odd song, it features a lone female voice, layered upon itself, with no supporting instruments or rhythm. Just her voice intertwined with itself. Months later, a friend from work recommended her album, suggesting it was right up my alley.

You might ask: “What exactly is your alley?” Golly, that remains a tricky answer…

I have passed through many musical phases over the years, including an unexpected six-week obsession with Dvorak in early 1998, and a misguided burst of enthusiasm for Country in 1993 (shivers run the length of my spine). When pushed to answer that simple-enough question, I have tended to provide a rambling response that one could reduce to: I have eclectic interests. As for my love affair with electronica…it began with Trainspotting and Underworld’s “Born Slippy” thumping into my ceiling from the upstairs apartment in college. But that’s another story for another day…

A downbeat electronica compilation brought me to hear Imogen Heap, but she’s an electronic artist only insofar as she employs looping machines and other electronic devices to manipulate her voice. Her music remains far from dancehall, glow-stick techno, trust me. Most people know her from several songs they included in The O.C. and “Let Go” (recorded with Frou Frou), from Garden State.

Her reliance on electronic gadgetry is apparent enough in “Hide and Seek” but when you see her live, it takes on a whole new gravity. After giving the audience some words of warning, she will pronounce a bar and stop, then repeat with a different non-verbal bar. You will hear those bars again, when she summons them from the white keys on her synthesizer. When such tricks are employed live, the effect is powerful. Studio magic is one thing, but such effects on stage are mesmerizing. The crowd rocks from side to side, watching for wires, trap doors, mirrors. (Although none of it is much more advanced than Stevie Wonder on The Cosby Show, I still think it’s pretty slick live.)

By the time she stepped from the crowd and onto the stage, we were already in a state of awe from Kid Beyond’s unique performance (more on that later this week). Her hair was teased into a Bride of Frankenstein do, and dressed with flowers. At her waist was a keyboard. We were a little confused at first, but she quickly settled down. When she sang, we heard her clear as a bell; when she chatted, I could only guess at her wit, because I caught only every third word. I gathered there had been some glitches at her show the previous night. Fortunately, the road crew seemed to have remedied whatever problems had marred her Philly set.

Speak for Yourself, released earlier this year, features an interesting mix of up-tempo and downbeat tracks. For the latter, a second player appeared at times to tap a xylophone, and for the former, opening acts Levi Weaver and Kid Beyond took the stage. Her entire set was strong, but the strongest moments came during “Headlock” and a powerful closing version of “Hide and Seek.”

Strange as this show may have been at times, I cannot give a strong enough recommendation to catch Imogen Heap if she visits your town…

Saturday, November 25, 2006

No Excuses, Mr. Shaffner

The first draft of today’s blog began with a litany of excuses for my recent Internet silence… First, I blamed the recent, vicious side effects of L-Tryptophan in that Thanksgiving turkey. Then, I blamed the process of reconfiguring my bachelor pad to accommodate another inhabitant. Next, I blamed Baltimore-Washington International and the delays (and corresponding frustration) that led us to rent a car and drive eight hours up I-95 all the way to Boston. Fourth, I blamed the new Brooklyn-Style Pizza from Domino’s. Fifth, I blamed the Patriots and my inability to cope when they lose. And finally, I blamed Emmitt Smith for winning Dancing With The Stars. That was too weird for me to handle.

Fortunately, after twaddling on for five hundred words, I stopped writing and demanded a re-write. “No excuses, Mr. Shaffner,” I said. “Excuses are for the weak.” I’m not weak; I’m lazy, and all the Outlook alerts in the world are not going to change that.

I’ve had a lot going on these last few weeks, but such a flurry should have proven fertile ground for blogging. To pay my penance to those twelve readers who check the blog each day and weep upon finding the content unchanged, I pledge a daily post for the next two weeks. I’ll be impressed if I follow through.

Quick recap of the last month: the aforementioned move-in, completed on Thanksgiving morning, was huge (and exciting). I have this to say, however: as much as I love assembly-required furniture, don’t permit me within a hundred yards of lettered panels and cam-locks for six months or I might snap. We were in Baltimore (twice), Western Mass, Syracuse (NY), Delaware, Maine, and the whole length of New Jersey. During our most recent trip to the Mid-Atlantic, I remembered that I would rather find myself stranded in Dulles, O’Hare, LAX, Logan… Anywhere but BWI with its $7.69 bottles of water. Keryn and I visited thirty-odd high schools (actually, while she visited, I sat in the car writing my novel on this trusty Dell XPS). We watched skates and sharks frolic in the National Aquarium. My sister bought a house outside Portland (ME) and hosted Thanksgiving, proving, once and for all, that any skepticism I may have shown toward her cooking was grossly misguided (she indeed cooks a mean bird). I enjoyed the hell out of Bright Lights, Big City and caught up on a pile of partially finished New Yorkers. Perhaps most incredibly, I inched within twenty pages of the end of my novel, and am hoping to polish it off before Christmas (allowing me the ultimate cop-out Xmas gift of all, a gift-wrapped manuscript copy for Mom and Dad… Shhh…). Three weeks ago, Keryn and I saw the strangest musical show I’ve ever seen: Imogen Heap, Kid Beyond, and Levi Weaver at Avalon. Last weekend, we watched from the nosebleed seats while Yale destroyed Harvard at The Game. And how can I neglect to mention watching the Arlington High School performance of Much Ado About Nothing? November has been a wild and crazy month…

Anyway, that’s my disorganized rant for today. Be back tomorrow to talk about the Imogen Heap show from three weeks ago… (better late than never).

No Excuses, Mr. Shaffner

The first draft of today’s blog began with a litany of excuses for my recent Internet silence… First, I blamed the recent, vicious side effects of L-Tryptophan in that Thanksgiving turkey. Then, I blamed the process of reconfiguring my bachelor pad to accommodate another inhabitant. Next, I blamed Baltimore-Washington International and the delays (and corresponding frustration) that led us to rent a car and drive eight hours up I-95 all the way to Boston. Fourth, I blamed the new Brooklyn-Style Pizza from Domino’s. Fifth, I blamed the Patriots and my inability to cope when they lose. And finally, I blamed Emmitt Smith for winning Dancing With The Stars. That was too weird for me to handle.

Fortunately, after twaddling on for five hundred words, I stopped writing and demanded a re-write. “No excuses, Mr. Shaffner,” I said. “Excuses are for the weak.” I’m not weak; I’m lazy, and all the Outlook alerts in the world are not going to change that.

I’ve had a lot going on these last few weeks, but such a flurry should have proven fertile ground for blogging. To pay my penance to those twelve readers who check the blog each day and weep upon finding the content unchanged, I pledge a daily post for the next two weeks. I’ll be impressed if I follow through.

Quick recap of the last month: the aforementioned move-in, completed on Thanksgiving morning, was huge (and exciting). I have this to say, however: as much as I love assembly-required furniture, don’t permit me within a hundred yards of lettered panels and cam-locks for six months or I might snap. We were in Baltimore (twice), Western Mass, Syracuse (NY), Delaware, Maine, and the whole length of New Jersey. During our most recent trip to the Mid-Atlantic, I remembered that I would rather find myself stranded in Dulles, O’Hare, LAX, Logan… Anywhere but BWI with its $7.69 bottles of water. Keryn and I visited thirty-odd high schools (actually, while she visited, I sat in the car writing my novel on this trusty Dell XPS). We watched skates and sharks frolic in the National Aquarium. My sister bought a house outside Portland (ME) and hosted Thanksgiving, proving, once and for all, that any skepticism I may have shown toward her cooking was grossly misguided (she indeed cooks a mean bird). I enjoyed the hell out of Bright Lights, Big City and caught up on a pile of partially finished New Yorkers. Perhaps most incredibly, I inched within twenty pages of the end of my novel, and am hoping to polish it off before Christmas (allowing me the ultimate cop-out Xmas gift of all, a gift-wrapped manuscript copy for Mom and Dad… Shhh…). Three weeks ago, Keryn and I saw the strangest musical show I’ve ever seen: Imogen Heap, Kid Beyond, and Levi Weaver at Avalon. Last weekend, we watched from the nosebleed seats while Yale destroyed Harvard at The Game. And how can I neglect to mention watching the Arlington High School performance of Much Ado About Nothing? November has been a wild and crazy month…

Anyway, that’s my disorganized rant for today. Be back tomorrow to talk about the Imogen Heap show from three weeks ago… (better late than never).

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Learning What “Freelance” Means

Two weeks ago I came across a freelance writer looking to meet others of his kind here in the Boston area.

I monitor the “writing gigs” at Craigslist every few days, on the off chance something catches my eye. That’s how I first hooked up with Being There Magazine, who published two of my album reviews last week. Unfortunately, most postings sit on the edges of legitimacy. Craigslist has proven immensely useful to me through the years, but it pays to have a cynic’s eye when perusing the listings…

This particular fellow seemed sincere. “The best part about being a freelance writer is that you don’t have a boss,” he said, “but the worst part is that you don’t have any co-workers.” Since I’ve barely started down this road, I had not reached that conclusion on my own, but it seemed sage. And sad.

A seasoned freelancer new to Massachusetts, the organizer was interested in learning about affordable health insurance here. Since I'm a newbie, I was intrigued to hear how other freelancers got started. I have taken the opportunity to “talk shop” once before, but my friend Ezra's path to freelance success is anything but typical.

The organizer suggested we meet at a pub in Harvard Square. I sighed with relief, since the cynical side of me half-expected him to suggest his living room, which would have confirmed suspicions that he was a skeevy death-cult recruiter with a chillingly sincere voice.

When I stepped into Tommy Doyle’s (where the House of Blues used to be--another Harvard Square departure, Ferranti-Dege and Tower Records are next...) I found the eclectic group with pint glasses on coasters. As the minutes passed, more writers came, until ten of us sat shoulder-to-shoulder around a table designed for six. It was a fascinating two hours, and I learned so much more there than I ever could have from online forums or bulletin boards. Most of us departed hoping to make such meetings more regular affairs.

As strangers recounted how they make their living, I realized that I had never understood the role writers play outside traditional markets. To a great extent, my view of “writing” has always been myopic. When I was growing up, I wanted to write a novel. My daydreams always culminated in a hardcover book bearing my name on the cover and spine. A thousand times, I imagined walking into a random bookstore, going to “S” in the fiction section, and plucking a copy of my bestseller from the shelf.

To me, that was writing. The Great American Novel remains my dream, but what about campaign letters from charities? Solicitations from credit card companies? (The twenty of those I shred each week probably written by twenty different freelance writers!) Corporate websites and newsletters? Grant applications? Marketing collateral? The “legitimate spam” I delete every day from my Inbox? Someone has to sit down and write all those words.

Until my newfound friends described their efforts in arenas other than magazines, newspapers, and books, I had not reconsidered the universe of freelance opportunities. It’s a broad market, peopled with thousands upon thousands of writers paying their rent with words, and without ever drafting a novel...

Somehow that makes trying to crack into this wacky business both more and less intimidating.

While I sipped another pint of Stella, I realized that I’ve been a paid writer for years. During the last eighteen months, I crafted corporate newsletters, technical specifications for custom software solutions employing varied technologies, user guides and manuals targeted to multiple audiences, and detailed proposals for complex multi-year projects. Through all those tasks, I never once realized that I was writing. Hmm. How imperceptive and narrow-minded...

Now off to pen a dozen query letters...

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Reading Aloud: An Unexpected Road Trip Pleasure

(This post also appears at http://normalguynormalgirl.blogspot.com)


The drive from Syracuse (NY) to Greenfield (MA) lasts 255 agonizing miles. By the time we start forth, we have already been in the car five hours, having visited five Syracuse high schools between 8:30am and 1:00pm. After a week on the road, we have wearied of the ten CDs we trucked along with us. Hold off on calling us Luddites; few rental cars come equipped with satellite radio, and we left our iPod attachments at home.

Keryn comes up with an unusual solution: “Maybe you should read aloud.”

My first impulse is to take this opportunity to read her the newest chapters of my novel-in-progress. But that might seem a little selfish on my part…

I have always been a proponent of reading my drafts aloud. There’s no better way to find pet phrases or clumsy structures than to recite them. Whenever I complete a draft, I carry the printout through my apartment and pace from bedroom to kitchen and back. In an online workshop I’ve been a member of for several years, I was appalled to see a fellow writer proclaim his belief that reading aloud was a waste of time, since that’s not how readers read. His lunacy was confirmed a paragraph later, when he went on to say that rhythm and language were immaterial to story.

I don’t know that this joker is alone in his assessment, though, which is a tragic thing indeed. In my years of workshopping, I have run across many people who claim to have a great story to tell and believe that the power of plot can compensate for lacking technical proficiency with the language. I’m not sure where they came upon this silly notion. Granted, on the opposite extreme, story sometimes disappears into a fog of figurative construct and purple prose. Literary writing is a balancing act of all the core elements. The craft is about using the sounds and shapes of words to tell a story. If your tongue trips on itself trying to read a sentence, flaws remain in need of smoothing.

But I’ve led us off topic.

Cut to an East Syracuse Kmart. Keryn and I are looking for a DVD to watch on my laptop back in the hotel room. We find a winner and head toward the front of the store. The fiction section holds us hostage for ten minutes. Both of us are bookstore addicts; it is a blessing and a curse.

Smack dab in the center of the display stands the maroon cover and mauve script of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. That famous novel was one of two unread books on the syllabus of a literature class I took my junior year at Harvard, and I have always felt a distinct measure of regret for not going back later and reading it. (The other unread book was Herzog by Saul Bellow). I impart this story to Keryn and she suggests we read it on the road. We agree that the jacket text is intriguing and drop the book in our cart.

Ten minutes outside Syracuse, with three hours of daylight remaining, on our way to Greenfield, Mass., I crack the binding.

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”

When I reach the bottom of the page, I stop.

“Now that’s writing,” I say. “Damn.”

Keryn nods. “Keep reading.”

There are awkward moments, words distasteful to my tongue, words that raise the fuzz on my neck. Some images haunt us. Vicious beatings and rapes. The murder of a daughter for reasons unknown. Scars, spirits, and sexual intercourse. Butter churns and pink granite tombstones. As the words roll from my tongue, Keryn asks: “Can you read that again?” And sometimes I finish a sentence and pause to mutter “Wow” before I can proceed. That is the power of great writing.

The first time I read Lolita, I stopped and stared at the first page, then permitted my eyes’ return to the top. I recited that famous opening in the quiet of my sophomore dorm room. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” In that moment, the power of language overwhelmed me.

But back to Beloved. This is a book built for oral recitation. The vernacular in the voices of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. comes alive, and you realize how perfectly the author has crafted the dialogue. Tight, evocative, and real. It’s a hard life few readers can truly imagine, yet it comes alive through the words. Speak through the characters and feel their anguish and sorrow, the fleeting moments of elation, the doubt and worry and hope. And in the long passages of exposition, you find sentences so powerful that sometimes you have to stop and say them again.

That afternoon in the car, I complete only fifty pages. But we decide that the entire book should be read this way, and through the weekend we take turns reading difficult and powerful words. I have never experienced a book this way. Beloved is truly a masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Keryn and I have decided this whole reading aloud thing, experiencing a great book in lockstep, is a tradition henceforth. Beloved will be a tough act to follow…

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Album Reviews Live

I have two recent album reviews live at Being There Magazine.

Gabriel & Dresden, Gabriel & Dresden
Game Theory, The Roots

Both albums are fantastic, and I hope the reviews are enjoyable!

Check out the rest of Being There Magazine, while you’re at it. They publish a full magazine every other month, complete with interesting features. Some CD and DVD reviews are added every month. The November/December issue went live over the weekend (including my two reviews!)

Let me know what you think!

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Friday, November 03, 2006

A Questionable Start to the Night...

Room 312

It may be misguided (or plain snooty) on my part, but if you see a sign such as the one above marking the door of your next hotel room, I recommend against sliding the key card into the door. Misery and heartache await across the threshold.

The above image comes from our first hotel room in the Berkshires (Sunday night). Sure, it was the best they could do on short notice after a prankster pried the real 312 from the wall with a pen-knife… But that doesn’t make it welcoming.

The folks in the lobby were downright bubbly in responding to our request to fix the fire alarm (the battery informed us it was low every minute after we entered). They gave us solid dining advice and directed us appropriately when it came to scouting Berkshire sights. The next morning, after a fitful night where neither of us slept more than four hours, they apologized profusely and let us out a day early without penalty. Owing to their friendliness alone, I will not disparage the chain on this page. However, if you find yourself in need of lodging in the quaint village of Pittsfield, Mass., may I recommend instead the Crowne Plaza, where we slept soundly the following evening, or try one of the dozens of quaint bed-and-breakfasts in the area.

And remember, if your room is labeled in multi-purpose paper and black Sharpie, make like a tree and leave.

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